Contrary to the many movies that have romanticized the idea of being a genius, working hard and never giving up, it’s no doubt incredibly daunting to convince yourself and others that you can control yourself to be more intelligent, less sloppy, and more responsible. It’s much easier to give into the stress and self-judgment that comes with repeatedly forgetting or ignoring deadlines or ignoring facts and figures you know you need to learn.

Luckily, we humans are masters of our own self-destructive behavior and are much better at reining it in than we are at getting it up. Research suggests that the way we’re taught to set and perceive goals can actually influence how we behave, and makes it much easier to control our behaviors by bringing us back to our unconscious.

Social scientists utilize behavioral games as a tool to help people do this. They find that a large number of research subjects learn better when stuck in pressure-packed pressure situations. Some psychologists theorize that the actions they take while stuck in these situations reflect how they’ve learned in the past.

Social scientists love this idea for another reason — they want to keep people from doing impulse-driven, careless behaviors that may improve their ability to compete in a quick and efficient manner, but may actually stunt their mental abilities. The act of talking with a friend over the phone may get you to give up that last flop sandwich on the night bus. But instead of driving it home the next morning in the afternoon, making it your New Year’s resolution to give up the flop sandwich, you’ll probably just vow to help yourself to some yogurt.

It turns out that in the stressful environment of a social experiment, the routine (like the flop sandwich) goes back to the brain’s unconscious. The stress is so great that the thought of breaking it makes your mind go crazy. This process is called “consistency induced dissociation,” and is the opposite of the process when a brain is consciously thinking about it.

So why do we do such a poor job of self-monitoring? “Psychologists have long been intrigued by the idea that we are more able to make rational decisions in a hurry, because self-regulation is delayed in our unconscious mind,” writes author Jeremy Rifkin, Ph.D.

“It’s possible that because our unconscious mind reacts to every moment on autopilot, we have little or no awareness of the time value of that decision in the moment and consequently take action based on the result we think the moment will produce.”

Rifkin believes that the behavior pattern we have for the task at hand can guide the decisions we make with and without our conscious awareness.

Researchers frequently use to “wet” social experiment to study our unconscious behavior patterns. Rifkin defines “wet” as emotional reactions to negative feedback, with positive feedback having no emotional response. The experiment then will show that the more negative our response is to the negative feedback, the more likely we are to correct or modify that behavior. Thus, every behavior pattern gets strengthened or weakened and the behaviors continue at that status quo until we notice them and adjust.

Rifkin continues:

“There is more than one theory for the logic of logic in the unconscious mind. One is the ‘deliberative theory,’ which is based on the assumption that self-control is not a skill but an unconscious process of collecting the evidence for an action and then rejecting it, if necessary. This may explain why we override our ‘autopilot’ automatic reactions if we are convinced that a situation will benefit us or make us stronger in a competitive environment.

“The second theory suggests that the factors affecting self-control are determined by what we put in our brain in terms of what we think we are doing. So if we make our self-control decisions based on what we thought we were doing, then we can tweak the outcome to make it positive. This may explain why we make self-control decisions based on what’s ‘in’ our subconscious mind rather than what our conscious mind is telling us to do.”

Another research project that supports this idea is doing “self validation.” It’s an experiment where subjects have to recognize their behavior patterns for themselves while others are monitoring them. The proof is in the pudding: the ones who feel they are already doing the “right” thing in their situation will perform better.

If you’d like to know more about using cognitive dissonance to study and manipulate behavior, read the rest of Rifkin’s article.

Source: “Inside the Mind of the Self” (copyright: Life Science International)

Using Cognitive Dissonance to Shape