Out of your (Unconscious) Mind

Out of your (Unconscious) Mind

Man removes face showing query while standing on highwayI recently wrote about the importance of educating the unconscious mind (Blog – Educating the Unconscious Mind), which is the ‘mind’ where most of our decisions and judgments are made.

I’ve had some good discussions with people who read the article and wanted to know more about ‘thinking’ in the unconscious mind. I’ve also had some people challenge my assertion that most of our thinking is not rational, slow, logical and methodical.

It’s great that we can have these discussions, I enjoy them. It is the main reason that I started writing Blogs, to share my learning, my thoughts and views. More importantly, I’m keen to listen to the views and thoughts of others, it’s just one of the ways I learn.

So I thought in this article I would share a little more of what I have learnt about the role that the unconscious mind plays in decision making, particularly when it comes to risk and safety.

To understand and discern risk, we make decisions and judgments about uncertainty. We are often required to do this without the benefit of unlimited time, or by using rational and logical thinking in our conscious mind. This is because risk is subjective and decisions about risk often need to be made quickly.

While we do make some decisions and judgements using our conscious mind, studies by Norretranders (1998, p.131) note that its capacity is limited by only keeping around seven things active in our conscious mind. When we think in our conscious mind it is slow, it takes time and quite frankly it is hard work. It requires us to analyse and work through things. So why is it that some people don’t understand that we make most of our decisions in our unconscious?

I wonder whether one of the reasons is that there have been varying views, opinions and studies done throughout the years, about the role of the unconscious. Bargh (2008, p.73) notes that: “Contemporary perspectives on the unconscious mind are remarkably varied. In cognitive psychology, unconscious information processing has been equated with subliminal information processing.” He goes on to say that; “Social psychology has approached the unconscious from a different angle.”

It is the perspective of social psychology that I am most interested in. It is the area that I have been studying and an area that I feel has been missing in ‘traditional’ risk and safety management. Social psychology is concerned about our social arrangements, culture, the spaces and places we live in, and importantly how the unconscious impact on our decision making. So how does social psychology help us understand the importance of ‘thinking’ in the conscious and unconscious?

One of the key references and a great read on the subject is Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) (you can see an interview with him here – (Kahneman Thinking Fast & Slow YouTube Video). Kahneman introduces the concept of System 1 (unconscious – the ‘fast’) and System 2 (conscious – the ‘slow’) thinking. Kahneman’s argues that most of our thinking is done in the fast, intuitive and emotion based System 1.

Dr Robert Long (2012, p.96) in his book Risk Makes Sense (Risk Makes Sense book) takes this a step further when he introduces his model One Brain, Three Minds Model. The model defines the types of decisions that we make in the conscious (Mind 1) and the unconscious (Mind 2 and Mind 3).

An example of how we may use the three minds to make a decision is the purchase of a house. Mind 1 may be used as a ‘checklist’ for the type of home you look for (single story, number of bedrooms, suburb). You can make these type of ‘decisions’ in a slow, rational and methodical way. Mind two (emotions, gut feelings and intuition) to the surprise of many, may actually be the mind that is used most often when making the decision which house to buy. Mind three is where we use heuristics (see – https://safetyrisk.net/i-wish-i-had-thought-of-that/) to make decisions. Heuristics are rules of thumb we have developed over time and through trial and error.

I know when my partner and I bought our house last year, we had the Mind 1 ‘checklist’ for the suburb, we’d thought about that long and hard. We both decided through our experience (heuristics – Mind 3) with other houses that we had lived in, that single story was best for us. However it was the ‘feeling’ of security and comfort that we felt when we walked in the house (emotions and gut feelings in Mind 2) that was the real decision maker. We couldn’t name or describe the feeling of security, we couldn’t tell a real estate agent about the type of house where we felt most comfortable and safe, it was just a feeling that we had when we walked in the door.

So what it is that made us feel this way? How could we make such a big decision and commitment as buying a house using ‘thinking’ in our unconscious mind? It is often the things that aren’t so obvious that inform our unconscious mind. Things like the colour of the walls, the way that light passes through the house, the floor plan and the noises that we may hear, or not hear from the neighbours. While we may be busy analysing the house in our conscious mind by looking for cracks in the wall, signs of disrepair or water leaks in the roof, all things that we may work through rationally when buying a house, it can be those things that we ‘look at’, but don’t see, or hear but don’t analyse, that can be the biggest determinants of decisions we make.

So if we accept that there are many factors that may inform our unconscious mind and therefore affect so many of the decisions that we make, what can we do about that? Here are some tips you may find useful:

· First, just recognising that there are things that impact on and inform our unconscious can be useful. This does not mean that we will be any more aware of them when we make decisions ourselves (they impact the unconscious after all), however, we can be aware of them when we are looking around our worksites and consider how they may impact thinking

· Try walking around your site with a different ‘lens’. Ditch your next hazard inspection, and wander around your site looking out for things that you think may play on our unconscious mind. Things like the words used in communication, signage, the colour of walls, the location of work stations and offices. Ask yourself how these things may impact on the unconscious

· Stop and think about how the space you are in makes you feel. What is it about the space that makes you feel this way?

I’d love to hear of the things that you feel may impact on the unconscious thinking at your workplace.



Bargh, John A. (2008) The Unconscious Mind Yale University. Association for Psychological Science

Long, Robert. (2012) Risk Makes Sense : human judgement and risk. Kambah ACT. Scotoma Press

Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York. Macmillan.

Norretranders, Tor. (1998) The User Illusion : Cutting Consciousness Dow to Size. New York. Penguin Books

Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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