Willpower and the Unconscious on Automatic Pilot

What is the practical value of research delving into our sense of self? Willpower is one answer. In the course of putting the pieces of my consciousness back together after assaults to my brain, I came to see my conscious self as being the size of a person navigating on the high seas. There was me taking wind, currents, and sea-worthiness into account, and there was the vast ocean and atmosphere offering up enough detectable patterns that I could navigate toward a destination.

Most of my dear readers experience their conscious minds as a complete self. The countless reminders and ideas that pop out our their subconscious “oceans” are taken for granted, not even given the credit for being convenient. That’s because their ocean never evaporated. They were never faced with hoisting a ship on their shoulders and carrying it the thousand miles to their destination port, all the while praying for rain — a lot of rain.

I mention this difference because many of my readers may have to stretch a bit to really appreciate how research into the unconscious and the sense of self pertain to willpower. In essence, I’m going to tell you how the captain, so insignificant in that ocean, can talk to the ocean and show it some symbols, so that the currents align to make the journey much easier.

There is a diverse and extensive literature showing that our behavior is often directed by unconscious goals that can be primed by various influences ranging from subliminal flashes of text to symbolic objects in our environment. This affects things ranging from our persistence to what unconsciously pay attention to. (Yes, attention can be unconscious.)

Dijksterhuis and Aarts provide a detailed overview of research pertaining to “automaticity,” that is, unconscious behaviors that operate, well, automatically. Being of a practical mindset, I look to such experiments with an eye to how they might help people succeed. Reviewing it with an eye to willpower and focus on goals, I kept hearing echoes of motivational speakers. It seems that most of what the research tells us is what we already know. (Please comment if you think I missed anything.) But if you’ve heard motivational speakers, did you just chalk it up to being somebody else’s Kool-Aid? If you didn’t take it seriously, then at least this mountain of research can serve as a powerful nudge in the right direction.

Prime, Baby, Prime!

One of the most important points, and maybe least used, is priming. We know that our mental state is very influenced by subliminals, even words flashed too briefly for us to see (consciously). The early excitement over subliminal commands about eating popcorn turned out to be generated by a hoax, but priming of “state” and even goals is another matter. We can be primed for success. Success-related words, provided subliminally, have been shown to improve performance. People improved their persistence and level of effort.

Have an environment that is rich with things that trigger associations in your unconscious mind related to your goals, especially when you most need them. Pictures of people you want to impress, music related to your goals, words and phrases posted in various spots, regular listening to motivational recordings, are all examples.

The smell of a commercial cleaning product caused people to clean up more crumbs after they ate cookies than people not exposed to the smell. They didn’t know it, but their subconscious minds were primed to clean just by the odor. See what I mean about using symbols?

Connect your short-term goals with long-term goals. This way you can get more oomph out of priming. The significance of the long-term goal will help drive the short-term goal. Connect in your mind the A in Calculus with having that pet dinosaur you always wanted to clone (or would you prefer a cape-style home for summering in the Hamptons?)

Examples: When I write down the tasks and when I plan, I jot down a few priming words that are related to what I want to do and, more generically, the state of mind I need to be in; usually just a few individual words. Remember that you don’t just prime your unconscious to orient to your goals. You also prime states. When my son was small, we played a lot of Barney songs. This is the uplifting and bouncy music of a purple dinosaur. I noticed that during the harsh winter, my mood improved a great deal as a result of having that music on. Now I listen to bouncy grown up music, but I select it for the emotional energy needed. But you already do that, don’t you?

Now it’s your turn.

What can you do to prime your subconscious for success, achievement, excellence, confidence, poise, inner peace, leadership?


Dijksterhuis, A., & Aarts, H. (2010). Goals, Attention, and (Un)Consciousness Annual Review of Psychology, 61 (1), 467-490 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100445

  • Top scientists demonstrate through their empirical findings that 1) free will is an illusion which can be principally manipulated and 2) people perform quite a lot of higher mental processes and behavior automatically, that is without their awareness and conscious attention. They demand a redefinition of the term “consciousness” and suggest deconstructing the question of “what is consciousness for?”


    • Juniper Bhagdi

      I find this area of science/psychology fascinating. How would you now define consciousness? You mention automatic behaviors, but what can we take advantage (actively manipulate)?

      • I think defining consciousness can be both personal and scientific, maybe yielding two different answers. It seems that researchers are saying that consciousness is about what our verbal brain can express. For artists and intuitive folks, the boundary between consciousness and the unconscious is much more of a vaporous distinction. The better they get at reaching in and dancing with their (mostly) unconscious resources, the more creative and comfortable with the artistic process they become. Again, it’s more like sailing than directly controlling; a complex, beautifully messy dynamic.

        • jerry Telle

          Awareness is not necessarily verbal — though much can accessed via verbal cues. The whole question of free will or not is ridiculous. The only thing important is that the free will paradigm is used to efficate ones life — that is explicit awareness of options, choice and outcomes. Implicit thought is that way — even for rats — become aware, weight the options and decide(and do) and assess (RPE) reward prediction error.

          Believing deterministically will no doubt determine!! your potential.


      • jerry Telle

        Consciousness is awareness of awareness. We can only freely manipulate what we are aware of.

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.

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