October 6, 2011

Professors’ Study Uncovers Unconscious Mind

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Minds are constantly adapting to their environments in order to direct behavior toward long-term goals, even if the conscious brain is not aware of doing so, according to a recent study by professors at Cornell and elsewhere.

“The unconscious mind is on your side,” said Prof. Sarah Moore, marketing, University of Alberta, who spearheaded the study with Prof. Melissa Ferguson, psychology, and Prof. Tanya Chartrand, psychology, Duke University.

Moore said the mind responds to cues in the environment and directs positive or negative attention to the brain, which influences decision-making.

“When you succeed at something, you feel more positively about it and are thus more motivated towards achieving that task,” she said.

While this phenomenon is typically associated with the completion of short-term goals, Moore said the study shows that the mind behaves similarly to achieve long-term targets.

“When you’re thirsty and see a water fountain, the mind looks favorably on the fountain to prompt you to drink. That’s a short-term goal,” she said. “Long-term goals take multiple steps — you have to keep working at them.”

For instance, a student with high aspirations for academic success might receive favorable signals from a backpack, a textbook or exam results, she said.

The triggers, however, are not completely arbitrary, according to Moore. She said they highlight goals that have already been activated, such as the desire to be fit and healthy.

Ferguson said this study is just one piece of the puzzle to determine how influential goal-setting is and how the unconscious mind is able to shape behavior.

“We think we know how we are going to behave, but the science tells us we could be mistaken,” she said.

Ferguson said that those skilled in a certain area will be most helped by motivation.

“Motivation works to the greatest degree for those skilled at that task,” she said. “If you already excel in the field, you will see an automatic positivity towards achievement.”

In addition, Moore advised against focusing too much on the inner workings of the unconscious mind.

“It’s best if you don’t spend too much time thinking about it. The mind will build associations itself over time,” she said.

Ferguson said one of the most important cues for the unconscious mind is feedback.

“Feedback on a goal dramatically affects an individual’s preferences. A little success feedback, such as a high prelim score, will greatly increase positive preferences for achievement,” she said.

In contrast, failure does not demotivate as much as one might think, she said. Rather, negative feedback simply neutralizes an individual’s motivation, making them ready to pick up on positive cues.

Moore said she and her colleagues are hoping to expand on the research to see if the results are more applicable to different groups, or if certain people respond better to failure.

“We strive for things our entire life,” she said. “We use the mind to alter goals or influence us in different ways. How important is that to you?”

Original Author: Harrison Okin