There Are No Conscious Decisions

You’re Not the Boss of You

Image by PixelsAway on BigStock

In over 10 years designing health and wellness programs for some of America’s largest and most and employee-friendly companies, it’s become clear that my main work is to help people make better decisions every day.

I’ve spent countless hours delving into the research and translating it into practical solutions delivered by App or website. Here’s what I’ve learned.

There are no conscious decisions.

What’s a Decision?

The word ‘decision’ comes from Latin, meaning “to cut off”.

When you make a decision, you cut off the other options. When you jump off the diving board at the pool, you have cut off the option to turn around and walk back to solid ground. It’s only a decision if you’re cutting off your other options. Anything else is just an intention.

It’s 3pm and you’re plowing through the workday. You might “decide” you’re going to run 3 miles after work. And have a healthy dinner with lots of fruits & veggies and no dessert. And get to bed by 10pm so you can get enough sleep.

Those aren’t decisions, though. They’re just intentions. It’s entirely possible you’ll find yourself on the couch after work, halfway into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. (Or is that just me?)

You Have Two Minds

One of the strongest findings from brain research over the last 30 years is the separation between the conscious mind and the rest-of-your-mind. In his book Strangers to Ourselves, researcher Tim Wilson at UVA calls the rest of your mind the “Adaptive Unconscious”. You might have read Malcom Gladwell’s popularization of these ideas in his more famous book, Blink.

To avoid confusion, I’m going to call it the automatic mind, a term several other researchers prefer. It’s the mental processes that happen automatically — which is to say, not consciously.

Humans have a unique ability to think consciously about our options and what path we should take. Have you ever sat down and listed all the reasons you should (or shouldn’t) take a new job or move to a different city? We’re the only animals that can consciously analyze our options.

But humans are not the only animals that make decisions. A lion decides whether to chase a gazelle. A dog decides to go through the doggie-door to get outside. Even a frog decides which way to hop. These animals make decisions, without the benefit of a conscious mind. They use their automatic mind.

We evolved from earlier species, and we share most of our DNA and brain structure with them. They used their automatic minds to make decisions. Why do we assume our conscious mind is the one making our decisions?

Which Mind is the Boss?

A famous set of studies measuring brain electrical activity gave us insight into the two minds, and how they interact around human decisions. In 1999, researchers Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley published a seminal article based on these studies, Apparent Mental Causation. Sources of the experience of will.

Under laboratory conditions, they observed the non-conscious areas of the brain light up and make a decision, such as choosing to move the right hand or left hand. A half-second later, the participants think they made a conscious decision. But the decision was already made, before the conscious mind kicked in to take credit for it.

Wegner and Wheatley explain that this is the illusion of will. The real causes of human action, they say, are not conscious. But we’re quick to explain them as the product of our conscious thought. Our conscious mind, the storyteller, is quick to make up a story that makes it the star.

The Junior Analyst

Here’s how I think about the relationship between the conscious mind and the automatic mind. The older, automatic mind is the boss. We inherited it from our evolutionary ancestors where it’s the boss.

The automatic mind has its hands on the switches and levers that allow us to jump off a diving board, say “yes”, or sign a contract. The brain structures that drive the automatic mind sit between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the body. You can’t get from conscious thought to action without them.

The conscious mind is a bolt-on accessory that’s not connected to anything but the older, automatic mind. It’s the junior analyst that the boss hired recently. It can make a recommendation, and in many cases the boss will follow the recommendation. It can convince itself that it’s the decision maker.

But ultimately, the conscious mind is not in charge. The conscious mind can’t jump off the diving board, can’t sign on the dotted line, can’t say “yes” or “I do”. The conscious mind can only have intentions, it can’t take the actions that finalize a decision. It’s not activated on the fMRI when the decision is made.

Ever heard about a skydiver who just couldn’t jump? The conscious mind was overruled by the real boss — the automatic mind that controls the leg muscles. And when you find yourself on the couch after work despite your best intentions — now you know what happened.

It’s no mystery that people’s intentions don’t match their decisions… once you know who is the boss.

Image by iqoncept on BigStock

Managing Up

The key to better decisions is what every employee already knows — the art of managing up. We’ve all done it at work. If you want your boss to make a certain decision, it’s not enough to make a strong and well-reasoned recommendation.

Some employees will ask the boss to make a small commitment today, that makes the later decision seem easier or inevitable. They will provide a steady trickle of information and prompts in the direction they want the boss to go. They will look for social proof, other people making the decision they want to push. They might even limit the information the boss sees — and keep the boss away from people who will influence him in the wrong direction.

Decision timing is critical. If the boss is agreeable today and in a good mood, then now is the time to get her to sign on the dotted line and commit. If the boss is temporarily unhinged or obstructionist, don’t ask for a decision until later.

The techniques that allow an employee to manage up and influence their boss’s behavior are the same ones that allow your conscious mind to influence better decisions in your life. It’s no coincidence. It’s the science of behavior change.

Image by Maria_Savenko on BigStock

Opponents Distracting Your Boss

The hardest situation is when someone else has the boss’s ear, and is pulling her toward the wrong decision. Maybe it’s a salesperson that wants her to buy the wrong product. Or a board member recommending something that won’t work.

We have that in health and wellness, too. The average US adult spends 11 hours a day consuming ad-supported media. That’s a big megaphone, speaking directly to the automatic mind. We see around 5,000 advertisements a day, and almost all the messages are against our interest.

Eat fast food. Sit on the couch and watch another episode — don’t get up and move. Get a new credit card. Spend money today, don’t save it for tomorrow.

If you’re not taking conscious action to manage the rest of your brain — someone else is. They’re writing data and stories to our memory, that the automatic mind will use in making tomorrow’s decisions. Advertising works, especially when you think it doesn’t. You can’t overrule that with conscious thoughts and intentions. You’re not the boss of you.

It takes a robot to fight the robots. Image licensed via BigStock.

We Need To Build An Ally

The current crop of behavior change strategies are not working well enough. Whether it’s health and wellness, voter participation, or anything else — our good intentions are getting swamped by 11 hours a day of counter-messaging from ad-supported media.

What is happening today is that our advertising-driven technology is teaming up with the older part of our brain to overrule our conscious goals and intentions. It’s two against one, and they are winning.

What we need is technology that teams up with our conscious goals and intentions to help us make the right decisions. Tech plus our conscious mind, teaming up against the worst impulses of our automatic mind. It’s the mirror image of the way we’re using tech today.

It’s an even bigger challenge because people are not a blank slate. We’re been well trained for decades already. That impulse to check social media? That habit of stopping at the drive-thru for fast food on the way home? There are geological layers of programming that we’re trying to overwrite.

Using Commitments and Managing Options

We need a new kind of technology if we want to make better decisions and achieve our goals (instead of the advertisers’). Here’s a sketch of how it will work.

The first principle is this: the individual who’s using the technology must pay the cost and be the customer. If you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold. Users will pay a monthly subscription fee.

The second principle is this: the new tech will stand in between you and the questionable tech you currently use. You interface with your technology, and it goes out to fetch information, make recommendations, filter communications, and even choose vendors and products based on your preferences. As I’ve written elsewhere, the model is Plaid for Everything — like the way fintech unicorn Plaid inserted itself between consumers and the banks they already used.

Almost everyone has days when it’s easy to carry out their conscious intentions. The “boss” is taking all your recommendations. That’s the day when you can buy a different set of technology and media, that’s designed for your benefit. You can install the new tech, and un-install or block the old tech. That’s the magic of teaming up the conscious mind with humane technology — you only need to win once.

Image by Sosiukin on BigStock

We Must Acknowledge Reality

In the 400 years since Rene Descartes and the Enlightenment, western society has believed that the conscious mind has primacy over everything else. With the advent of real-time brain scanning, we’ve known for the last 20 years that this basic assumption is wrong.

Our failure to make choices and policy based on this new scientific understanding leads to a world where we spend our lives fulfilling the objectives of advertisers, media and tech companies instead of our own. We’re vulnerable to a very simple set of hacks, because we don’t think we’re vulnerable.

It’s time to acknowledge reality. The conscious mind is humanity’s greatest gift, but the conscious mind is merely the junior analyst. The automatic mind is the boss. If we acknowledge this reality, we can start buying technology that teams up with our conscious mind to drive better decisions every day.

I call it living more consciously. Let’s start today.

20+ year Tech Entrepreneur. Building a future where tech serves people, not the other way around. Learn more at:

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