12 min read

Deep down, you already know what you'll do

Most of our decisions are made, or at least heavily influenced, by our subconscious. Today, a short outline of one way that works (priming) and a longer interview around the relationship between your conscious mind and your subconscious.

Often when you go to someone for advice, they reply with: "Deep down, you already know what you'll do". Oddly enough, it's true.

Neuroscientists have consistently shown that a lot of our decisions are made before our conscious mind intervenes.

We make thousands of mundane decisions every day, from deciding what to eat or how we should spend our time.

But what about the difficult decisions that take longer to answer? The ones we spend our time thinking through and (you might) attempt to make rationally?

Well, it turns out they're heavily influenced by our subconscious too. It's rare that the conscious mind overturns its initial impressions. Your memory and emotions are active in modeling and planning your answer. Before you have even framed a question.

This is your "system 1" at work. In the moment it is involuntary and automatic. This involves priming your brain.

A Priming Study

My favorite example of priming is a study involving two groups of people. They were asked a question about the mean temperature in Germany. One group were asked whether the mean temperature in Germany was above or below 5C/41F. The other group whether it was above or below 20C/68F.

Then they were shown a series of words while the electrical activity in their brains was measured. The group asked about the lower temperature recognized winter-associated words more quickly. The other group were “primed” for Summer words.

Stop for a moment and think about that.

Video Interview

Adapted Transcript

An Introduction to Conscious vs. Subconscious Decisions

Conscious decisions are made when you take the time to think through what you're going to do and you direct it (the action) yourself. Let’s take physical decisions as an example.

The first time you throw or catch a ball, ride a bike, or walk for that matter, even though you don't remember it, you're consciously planning everything you do. You're watching the ball very consciously and then catching it, moving your hands into the right position.

You’re thinking about where it might go and trying to project that. Once you've done that a few dozen times, all you do is put your hands out and catch. You don't have to think through where the ball is going because your eyes track the parabola. You don't have to think about your hand placement because you just put your hands out and catch the ball.

That's all you have to tell yourself to do, and your body knows how to do the rest. So what was a very conscious decision to place your hands in a particular position becomes a completely automatic process over time. It becomes subconscious and the same kind of transition happens for how we think as well.

Initially, it might be difficult to sit still quietly and not do anything. But once you've done that for a while and you've learned to notice that you think things even when you're trying not to (thoughts pop into your head), you become more comfortable at it. It becomes an easier process.

The same goes for any kind of mental loop that you get caught in, whether it's the first time you choose to engage on a particular platform on social media or whether it's the first time you choose to sit down and write something. Whatever it is, whether it's journaling or etc., the first time is really difficult.

The second time, it's slightly easier. So is the third time and so on, until it becomes a process where you can engage in particular bits - whatever you find enjoyable or difficult. But most of the time, it's more passive and it's easier.

What’s happening is your brain optimizing for doing the thing that you've done several times. It has become a kind of habit of thought or a habit of writing or a physical habit in catching the balls.

What was a difficult effort for conscious process has now become subconscious.

The subconscious includes a lot of things that you never do physically in the first place. Things like your self-regulation are all subconscious. If you're thinking thoughts that excite you, these are kind of conscious plans.

Let’s say you're planning something exciting, an outing on the weekend where you ride a roller coaster. Consciously envision that you're sat on that roller coaster. Your heart rate is elevated, your pupils are dilating, and everything's going to get excited and ready.

That’s your body reacting to your conscious thoughts. It's your conscious and subconscious bridging. So the important thing about the kind of interface between the two is that your subconscious reacts to what you're doing, then influences your conscious thoughts because when you're excited, you're more likely to look for opportunities to be excited.

You're less likely to choose a path of relaxation. You're more likely to go out and play something and do something fun.

How does your subconscious make decisions for you: “Deep down you already know what to do”?

When you're presented with a set of opportunities, even before you've formally thought through the question and think through what you're going to do next, your brain has already run through all of those different paths subconsciously.

That priming effect from your brain is already running through and feeling those paths, pulling together all the associated memories and kind of making the decision several times over subconsciously. It largely determines what you're actually going to do, whether you'll choose to eat the sweet or whether you'll choose not to, in the example of all the psychological tests.

So whether you're going to choose to cheat or not cheat or estimate a number in one of the guessing games that they use in the psychological tests, what happens is your subconscious largely determines what you actually choose to do.

But you do have agency. You can always intervene on these things, but if you choose not to and choose to take the easier path and do what comes naturally, then deep down, you already knew what you were going to do because your subconscious has already decided it. If you pause and listen to yourself for a moment, then your decision is made.

Sometimes that works for you, sometimes that works against you. It depends partly on whether you're in a psychological test or in real life. In reality, this concept tends to work for you more than against you. It also depends partly on how well you've trained your subconscious to reflect what you actually want to do in different situations that you face every day.

So that's what expertise is. It's knowing how to react in a particular context in a nearly automatic way.

Is this where follow your heart/gut comes from?

Follow your heart and follow your gut tends to be about life decisions as opposed to work decisions. The difference between life and work is that when you work, you tend to have a logically defined objective.

Whereas in life (for most people), there are no defined objectives or goals. Most of us have a vague set of aspirations, in some cases narrow or in some cases completely non-existent. We go through life making decisions to shape what's around us to suit us.

Those are things that you can’t do logically; they just can't be calculated. There are no right decisions in the majority of your life situations, which partner to have, where to go for work, where to move to, which country to live in, whether to have kids now, etc. Those aren't decisions with the right answer.

There is no right answer. So follow your heart or follow your gut or listen to your intuition or however you want to frame it, basically means listen to your subconscious. It can do far more in terms of emotional understanding,  thinking through different paths and possibilities, and how those might feel than your conscious mind ever can. It can help you make far better decisions than your conscious mind ever can.

That's where follow your heart really comes from. It's kind of the old wisdom that if you just listen to yourself and you go with what feels right, then your life will tend to be in a better place than if you try and work out what might be right or what I should do in a given situation.

What might feel right vs. What I should do…

Those are terrible questions. Most people ask those questions a lot because you're taught what you should do. Most teaching nowadays is framed in terms of how people decide: what they do is what they should do. How they get that job or how they follow that path, these are all logical decisions and logical questions.

But for most people, those decisions will lead you away from what feels right. And what feels right, often leads to a better life.

Can we scientifically measure how long it takes for someone to make a decision? What's going on in the brain?

It depends on the complexity of the decision. So if you're looking at most psychological, experiment type questions where people are being asked to estimate, respond, or click when a visual stimulus changes, they are instantaneous decisions made way before your conscious mind intervenes.

There's very little evidence that people have immediate “in the moment” agency over those kinds of decisions. It's nearly all immediate, measured in milliseconds rather than seconds.

So for immediate decision-making, you're talking a few milliseconds after receiving a stimulus. People start to react because your body and brain is kind of running through a set of routines and processes that happen at the speed of electricity and neurochemicals so that they don't need you to think.

In contrast, when you're actually thinking through a decision (well, it depends on the complexity of the decision and all of the priming processes happen more quickly than you can consciously think in words), but for the actual decision-making, you can take longer. You can intervene if you choose to when it's not a set response type situation.

Simple decisions are made before you know you're even making them.

I don't know why it feels like people take a long time to make those decisions. The way that they used to study this is that they look at things like muscle twitches. Now they measure the electrical impulses that lead to muscle twitches. You can see that those happen before people think. They're consciously making a decision over where to click in response to a visual stimulus or something like that.

So it's fairly clear that the conscious mind isn't always involved in that kind of action and that the response starts before you're thinking about it. Doesn't mean you can't interrupt it. It's a bit like if a ball is flying towards you. There will be an automatic impulse that measurably occurs before you even consciously notice the ball of your hand, moving up to catch it.

If a ball was flying towards your face, you could intervene and let the ball hit you in the face. But that would be a conscious decision made after you've probably started to move. You would have to intervene at some point before your arm starts to move. And it depends on the extent to which your response is automated.

Whether it's a physical or a mental reaction, habitual actions often start before you even think about what's happened around you - what the stimulus is. Whereas for more complex decisions, you have more time to think them through, to intervene. They're still affected by all of these subconscious processes, but they're not determined in quite the same way.

Any advice for anxious overthinkers who cannot accept: “Deep down you already know what you’ll do”?

It's very difficult for people who are currently in a stressed out situation to follow that instinctual responses and get a good outcome. One of the kind of prerequisites for “follow your heart” to be good advice is that the person receiving the advice is in a reasonably good mental state. Unfortunately, if you're really stressed out to the point that the anxiety is having those physical effects of narrowing your visual perception and narrowing your perception of the range of options available to you, you won't be able to see all of the responses available to you.

Your subconscious can't run through. You can't use the same processes. It's more difficult. So the advice that I'd give somebody who's in that situation is to try and work on the kind of mental peace first. And then follow your heart.

Most of the advice I give is more useful to people who are already in a reasonably good state of mental health and who are looking to move from good to great.

There are other people who provide better advice for people who are trying to move from depressingly common to good.

However, the best way to make a decision for overthinkers is to step away from it for a while. To go and do something else. So think about the decision, do your thinking, and then step away from it. This is because if you're an over-thinker and if you don't do it right now, you'll do all that thinking and worrying just before you go to sleep or something. That's perfectly normal and this is just what happens, but do your thinking and then step away from it.

While you're awake, don't step away from it just by sleeping. Step away from it by doing something immersive, by engaging in a really kind of meaningful conversation with somebody. Reading a book draws you in and puts you into a different fictional world. Going for a walk somewhere engages you and inspires you.

Do something that really draws your attention in and takes it away from whatever decision you're trying to make. After you've kind of stepped away from it, come back to the decision. Try and just sit to perceive what your initial responses and the choices are. If you've done the thinking and you've stepped away to put your mind on something else, that initial decision will be the one that is most suited to you for complex things.

That doesn't work so well for simple goal led decisions. But for life decisions, that process works as well as anything you're going to find.

Stepping away is incredibly powerful. But when you step away, you have to immerse yourself in something else. That’s the difficult thing that a lot of people find hard is that when they step away, they do one of two things. They either step away to brood and think about the problem, perhaps read it through in their mind a thousand times before they go back to it (which doesn't help at all because it doesn't let you calm down) or they step away into a passive stimulated state.

This involves scrolling on social media or they step away by watching something on Netflix. That doesn't work either because what you're doing when you're in that state is you're still stimulated. Your body is still running through and receiving new stimuli that don't allow it to calm down and relax. You may be still running through the whole decision subconsciously. Whereas if you're really immersed in something such as being engaged in a conversation, you're relaxed, or if you already have a bit of mental peace, then your subconscious can relax, calm down, and realize that it's not on that decision at that moment.

You can come back to the difficult thing later.

Final thoughts

For people who already have a semblance of mental peace, making decisions in an intuitive way is incredibly liberating because it means you don't have to sit and stress over every decision.

It’s liberating because once you realize you don't have to stress over every decision, you start to make more decisions intuitively. And once you realize that they're good decisions, you can extend your kind of circle of competence. You can feel competent in more areas with automatic decision-making.

Following your feelings rather than following a process is the human way to act. We're not computers, we should stop acting like computers in the way that the people who logically make decisions do. Follow your gut, follow your heart, or follow your feelings is a way to do that.

It works incredibly well as long as you’ve found that mental peace  first. That’s the transition step but once you're there, you need to start letting your body do what it does naturally (subconscious). Live a bit more.