John Bargh: Before Thinking - How the Unconscious Steers Us

John Bargh: Before Thinking - How the Unconscious Steers Us

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American social psychologist John Bargh has been studying the effects of the subconscious on human decisions for decades. In his new book, he summarizes his results on the unconscious: Our feelings, our thinking and our actions are controlled by hidden processes, much more than we assume. Accordingly, we are dangerously wrong if we assume that we would act consciously in our everyday behavior. On the contrary, the unconscious plays a central role in our daily behavior. Only if we know this can we avoid unwanted patterns of action and outsmart the unconscious.

“The unconscious has a strong and often invisible effect on our behavior, sometimes even in a scary way. It not only shapes the people we are, but also our future self and the goals we will achieve. ”

The subconscious is an autopilot

We cannot even actively remember our decisive imprints in the first years of life. The subconscious works like an autopilot. Studies have shown that students who think rationally speak more positively about people if they hold a cup of warm coffee in their hand instead of a cold drink. Toddlers soak up cultural influences without being aware of them later and dig them in so deep that, as adults, they even fall back on them if they consciously reject them.

Evolutionary urge in the modern world

According to Bargh, people are equipped with inner drives that developed in the very early periods of our evolutionary history. Awareness is not at the center of our actions, but we would function largely unconsciously. The strongest evolutionary urge to protect ourselves physically and survive shapes our actions and beliefs - and that is unconscious. This is how we make our decisions in a split second. This makes sense, since conscious thinking and acting in extreme evolutionary situations would have been too slow. But this unconscious thinking and acting has pitfalls because it leads to objectively wrong ideas and stereotypes, according to Bargh.

According to Bargh, our technical development is much faster than our evolutionary-biological adaptation: “It is easy to lose sight of the fact that our unconscious tendencies were shaped and adapted in a far more dangerous and long-ago world, a world in which extreme cold and heat, droughts and famines, hostile people and wild animals, harmful bacteria and poisonous plants threatened life. "

Political values ​​and evolutionary goals

Therefore the need for security is fundamental and has a powerful influence on our values, norms and actions also in modern life. This is noticeable, for example, in political elections. Roosevelt, like Obama Barack, wanted to overcome the fear of social change. According to Bargh, people would become more conservative and rejected change when they felt threatened. It is much easier to turn a liberal into a conservative than vice versa. Studies have shown that one can persuade a liberal to adopt conservative attitudes by frightening him. Conversely, an experiment in which subjects in a game were physically invulnerable led to conservative attitudes changing to liberal ones.
Historians have found that the belief that society changes for the worse is a constant among Greeks and Aztecs alike. Since the world, objectively speaking, does not constantly change for the worse, the reason for these ideas cannot be objective. We would consider inner transformations from childhood to adolescence to aging to be external changes. However, we are only clear about our emotional state at the moment. Emotions attract our consciousness and hold it there. Older memories are largely associated with strong emotions.

Truth and emotion

Recent pasts become distant pasts and are remembered because at that time they caught our attention and triggered strong emotions - it had little to nothing to do with objectivity. What we believed to be true depends on our emotions, for example when we are angry and then calm down.

Today's social motives and actions are based on unconscious, evolutionary goals and are in their service. According to Bargh, we should therefore consciously check our gut feeling and, if there is no time for it, at least not take great risks for small goals if our gut feeling recommends it.

Evolutionary fears shape the worldview

The importance of the subconscious was clearly demonstrated, for example, in a study of the assessment of crime among 1800 US citizens over the past eight years. While respondents who had had children during this period thought that crime had increased, those who had had no children believed that it had decreased. Because of the babies, the fear for the safety of the child came to the fore, while the childless did not have this fear. Protecting children from potential dangers makes parents vigilant, and this responsibility translates into their worldview, Bargh said.

Shopping and emotions

According to Bargh, emotional states in the unconscious have an impact on the price we pay for a product. We would value an object if we owned it ourselves. If we were disgusted with an object, we would sell it at a lower price than usual to get rid of it. Sad people are willing to spend more money on the same items than people who are not sad. Buy also help the sad to feel better. This shows that antidepressants also lead to a moderate purchase.


According to Bargh, human memory is not only fallible. It can even be fooled by recent experiences, for example by frequently hearing a name in the hours before. One study showed that spouses rated their own chores far more than the other's, simply because they had no memory of what the other was doing while away from home and remembering what they were doing. This is a point of frequent disputes: "I still remember that I did it last week."

The past would become a foreign country that we would like to transfigure. Almost every generation believes that art, music, work ethic are not as good as they used to be, children are spoiled, there are more crimes etc. - According to Bargh, the past is not just about individual memory: "It is the past - the early past of our species, ours unique past as a toddler, which we no longer remember, and our recent past, which is now retreating into the rear-view mirror of our day. ”

The hidden present

Even with Korsakow patients there is an unconscious memory. While they can not consciously remember recent events, their bodies store memories of unpleasant stimuli. For example, patients with Korsakov's syndrome showed the same patterns of inclination or aversion as people without this disorder, even though they have little or no memory of people and / or objects. The example of Korsakov's patients shows a basic mechanism: "While our conscious attention is often absorbed elsewhere, this unconscious control process helps us decide what to accept and what to reject, when to stay and when to leave."

Our classifications would amount to good or bad, strong or weak, active or passive. The most important is the rating in good or bad, then the potency and thirdly the vitality. In evolution, the first thing we should have known was whether something out there was good or bad for us. If, for example, the Stone Age man Ötzi had met a stranger, he would have had to first assess whether he was good (friend) or bad (enemy), then how strong and ultimately how fast and healthy he was. All animals have the elementary mechanisms of approaching “good” for them and retreating “bad” for them. And they also apply to humans: "Each of us still carries the relics of the entire evolutionary history of our species with us."

Mere contact effect

The more often we encountered something, the more positive we find it, writes Bargh and also explains the meaning in it. The more often we see things that don't harm us, the safer they pose no danger to us. However, if something disturbs the order we are familiar with, this effect is immediately suspended.

Helplessly delivered?

Ironically, a person's idea of ​​acting rationally leads to the fact that the unconscious can work all the more. On the other hand, if we accept that we don't really have free will, we could better control our actions in reality. So we could use our unconscious powers productively, for example by changing our environment.

Change the environment

The best way to change behavior is to change the environment. If a person wants to adopt good habits and stop bad ones, then he should remove the stimuli and opportunities that supported the bad habits from his environment. Effective self-regulators would leave the unhealthy snacks behind while shopping, and if they wanted to reduce alcohol, they wouldn't fill up the home bar. People with good self-control could not resist temptation better than others in the narrow sense, but would be less exposed to them. Real self-control is associated with the use of less willpower and effort when performing the desired actions.

Self-control means doing it in advance

People with good self-control would finish their lives in advance. Because they use unconscious means to regulate themselves and would make "necessary evils" such as sport, healthy eating or studying an everyday part of life - conscious self-control, on the other hand, is too exhausting and too unreliable, and prone to rationalization ("a Slice of cake a day does no harm ”) and excuses (“ I had a hard day and just have to relax after work ”).

Habituation becomes the unconscious

The use of external stimuli to control unwanted impulses and undesirable behavior is a powerful tool that can bring about significant changes in lifestyle. As soon as a desired behavior is practiced, it becomes a new habit and a new routine. The first weeks are the hardest, then the whole thing runs routinely. Bargh quotes athlete Dr. George Sheehan: “The body wants to do the same thing yesterday. If you ran yesterday, he wants to run today. If not, he doesn't want it. "

The setting determines our behavior by far the most. In church we are quiet, chatty at dinner outside, loud and exuberant at football games. At fast food, we would order the food at the counter, in a fancy restaurant we would wait until we were taken to a table.

We can use the unconscious

The psychologist concludes: "By tuning the strings of our mind with our intentions, we can fundamentally improve our health, our peace of mind, our professional career and our relationships." (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • by John Bargh (Author), Gabriele Gockel (Translator), Bernhard Jendricke (Translator), Peter Robert (Translator): Before Thinking: How the Unconscious Steers Us, Droemer HC; Edition: March 1, 2018

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