When someone presents us a pastry and we refuse after a long hesitation, we consciously resist that temptation. We think about it, come up with arguments for and against and make the decision. But new research suggests that our brain protects us against temptation even without our awareness.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania write that in the magazine Cognition. They base their conclusion on an experiment.
Subjects sat down behind a screen and were instructed to press a button when they saw the letter "X" appear. If the letter 'Y' appeared, they were absolutely not allowed to press the button. Their actions were influenced by subliminal messages: words that appeared on screen so briefly between the letters that the test subjects could only perceive them unconsciously. For example, words appeared that encourage action ('run', 'go', 'start'), but also passive words ('sit', 'rest', 'stop') and made-up words ('rnu', 'tsi "). While the subjects participated in the experiment, their brain activity was measured.
Although the active and passive words had nothing to do with the action that the test subjects had to take or not (press the button), they did influence the test subjects' brain activity. When the subjects were unknowingly exposed to passive words, the activity in the part of the brain involved in self-control increased. While exposure to active words caused the activity in that part of the brain to decrease.
Words that we unconsciously take in, therefore influence our self-control. What does that mean? An example. For many people, mindless eating is normal. You are sitting in front of the TV, with a bag of chips on your lap and before you know it the bag is empty. Without being aware of it, you have eaten that bag. What would have been needed to make you stop eating halfway through? Scientists always thought it needed a bit of awareness. So you should consciously think 'I will stop eating now'. But this research questions that. Our brain can make sure that we stop eating without being aware of it. For example, because our brain - without being aware of it - catches a passive sentence. For example: 'Take it easy'. And that sentence does not even have to be said to us: if our brain accidentally catches someone saying that to someone else, that probably also has an effect. Simply because we don't have to be aware of it.
"Losing weight, quitting smoking, saving money: it all requires self-control," the researchers write. "Various psychological theories state that actions can be deployed automatically without much conscious effort, but the same theories also state that stopping those actions requires effort and that we are aware of this." The researchers make it a bit more concrete with the help of an example. "Although we do not have to think deeply to get a cookie, a deliberate, conscious intervention is needed if we want to put that cookie back on the scale." At least: we always thought that. "Our research questions that assumption."