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Most of our thinking is subconscious

Have you ever noticed how ideas come to you? Do they always come to you when you're thinking hard, or do they just occur to you, seemingly out of nowhere, while you are in the shower or taking a walk or just minding your own business? How does this idea really occur in your brain?

What about when someone tells you a secret? Part of you really wants to tell someone else, while another part of you wants to do the morally right thing. Or part of you knows you should exercise and yet part of you wants to eat that chocolate ad part of you feels eating just half the chocolate is a fair compromise. You're one person, so which exactly is you?


Can your answer to something be manipulated by someone else without you noticing? Just think of when advertisement successfully enticed us to buy something, only to realise later we never wanted it. Or how many of us, despite knowing it is a ploy, still convince ourselves that $4.99 is a lot cheaper than $5. 

There is an incredibly long list of factors that affect how we view the world, how we interpret the information coming to us, how and what we think, what actions or behaviour we take. Collectively, we refer to all of these as the subconscious mind. 

But before we delve deeper into this, some more examples. 

What's 2 + 2?

Try This!

I know what you're thinking. 
What is this? Pre-school? I know the answer - stop wasting my time.

So we all know the answer is 4. But try something - can you get yourself not to calculate the answer? Try it. 

And you realise, you literally cannot stop yourself from computing the answer. It's your own brain, so why can't you control it?

Take a look at the picture above. A normal picture of Adele, the singer, just upside down, right?

Just... not quite. Mouse-over the box if you're on a computer. If you're on a mobile device, click here to see what the picture looks like right side up. 

Woah! What's happening? I thought I saw something with my own eyes - except... I didn't see it?

When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers during 9/11, were there clouds in he sky?

Try This!

Another example. Most of us will have seen the horrific pictures or videos of 9/11, where we saw the planes crashing into the twin towers. 

But even though you have seen the pictures and videos so many times, why can't you remember if there were clouds beside the plane? You might argue that I don't remember because, who cares? it's not important. Sure. But did you tell your brain not to remember? Or did your brain just do so automatically? 

A drink and a cookie cost $1.10. The drink costs $1.00 more than the cookie. How much does the cookie costs?

Try This!

So the majority of readers will answer $0.10. Good news. Your answer is the same s about 70% of people, including those from the very best universities in the world. The bad news, your answer is wrong. Work it out again.


Ok final example. This graph shows the consent rate of different countries for organ donation after death. There's such a drastic difference in rates between the ones in gold on the left, and the ones in blue on the right. But why?
The reason isn't culture. The countries on the left and right share similar cultures - Germany vs Austria, the Netherlands vs Belgium, Denmark vs Sweden. It isn't about education - the Netherlands did the most public education of any country.

The difference came down to just one reason
 - how the question is phrased. In particular, whether the default option is:

  • yes, I will donate organs (and if I don't wish to, I will have to separately indicate so), vs

  • no, I will not donate my organs (and if I wish to, I will have to separately indicate so)

Donating our organs is a big decision. Without changing the decision, the seemingly minor change in how the question is framed leads to a drastic difference.

But let's go one step beyond the decision itself. What if I were to ask you to explain why you "made" that particular decision.

Imagine if you were in Austria. Almost every single person donates their organs post-death. If I were to ask you why you choose to donate, you might explain that you can help others and literally save lives, without any cost to yourself, so why not?


But if you lived just 5km to the west in Germany, very few people donate their organs. Chances are you wouldn't either. And you would probably then come up with a different reason to explain your decision, maybe that you hope to keep your body intact, or it's a very major and difficult choice to make. 

Yet we know that the real determinant was neither - it was just how the question was framed. And this brings us to some interesting considerations:

Is each decision we make due to our own conscious thought?

Or does one or several factors unconscious to us influence(s) us to make a decision in a certain way.


When we explain why we made a certain decision, do we explain the considerations behind a decision? Or do we rationalise the decision that was already made by factors outside of our consciousness?

the elephant and the rider.jpg

Which brings us to everyone's favourite analogy - the small rider on the large wild elephant. 

We often believe that we are the ones in charge of what and how we do, and where we go in life. But mostly, the truth is the opposite. Our unconscious thoughts are very much like the big wild elephant, and our conscious thoughts are like the little rider on top of it.

Most of the time, we:


  • are not aware of how the elephant functions. We don't how it walks, or why its trunk is so strong, or why it suddenly falls ill. 

    We don't know how our blood pressure can auto-regulate, so that the blood pressure of 2 chess grandmasters in a tight contest is the same as 2 champion boxers in a fight. We can't really tell how much stress is too much and causes our brain to become slightly different, making us more anxious and edgier. We are not even aware of the times our attention auto-filters out information, or what we remember from an incident - remember the 9/11 example above?


  • cannot change what comes naturally to the elephant. The elephant might hear a sound and feel frightened. And you might think, it's big and mighty, what is it afraid of? What can possibly harm it? Well, think about our own lives. We are big and mighty, so why are we scared of a cockroach? Have you ever known anyone who was ever harmed by a cockroach? Or what about all the things that we feared which never happened? Or why are we scared of being viewed badly by people we don't like?

    The elephant behaves differently when it is hungry or tired. And so do we. Think about when you were tired and hungry at the end of the day. Were you kind to others, or more judgemental? 

    The elephant might be very timid when brought up in a harsh circus. It might be overbearing brought up in the wild. It might be more curious about people than other elephants.  Sometimes it feels like playing and sometimes it just wants to sleep. And sometimes, it doesn't sleep even when it's tired. 
    Just the same for us. Some childhood incidents might shape our personalities for life. There are some things we are just interested in and some things we just aren't. We trust strangers with lower voices. We think better-looking people are smarter. We jump to conclusions. And we might not even understand ourselves that well - sometimes happiness is selfishness, and yet sometimes happiness is from altruism. 

  • find it very difficult to direct the elephant to do something different. The elephant might rush to its left, where just taking a few steps brings it to a beautiful clump of trees and vegetation. Yet the rider can see that if they went right, even though the distance is longer, there is a much bigger forest, a far bigger reward if the elephant can just walk more to begin with.

It’s not that the rider cannot control the elephant. It’s that the elephant experiences so many things unconscious to the rider, and all these combine to influence how the rider thinks about things. Imagine how you feel if you are a rider on a big elephant, and it starts running away in fear. Would you not feel fear yourself? And this is how it works. The unconscious influences the conscious, and you then explain it as if you made the decision. Except you didn't. The rider merely explained what had happened. 

This would be a good time to introduce 4 major characteristics that fully show the workings of the small rider and big wild elephant. These characteristics perpetuate every area of our lives. Check them out:

Thatcher effect top (adele).webp
Thatcher effect bottom (adele).webp


We create stories to help us understand and explain the world. These stories are hard to change

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