Unconscious processes govern our lives. When we think of the unconscious we tend to imagine nefarious, socially unacceptable thoughts that have been relegated deep below the surface of awareness where they percolate, ready to pounce into consciousness during moments of weakness, such as when we’re tired or asleep. But modern psychology regards the unconscious less as a repository of despicable ideas and more as a vast supercomputer that’s able to process information so quickly and efficiently that the information simply fails to become conscious.
Most of the mental processing we do is unconscious. As you read these words, you’re not consciously analyzing individual letters, trying to remember the sound each one makes and assembling the sounds into words and sentences. That processing happens unconsciously. When a coworker shuffles by your desk with his head hung low, mumbling to himself and clenching his fist, you don’t consciously go into detective mode and try to decipher whether he’s in a good mood or not. It hits you right away that he’s not. Your unconscious mind automatically does the detective work for you and presents your conscious mind with the conclusion.
Many of the goals we pursue are unconscious. In a groundbreaking study published in 2001 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers had participants do a wordsearch puzzle that either contained (Group A) or didn’t contain (Group B) a lot of high-performance words such as “win”, “compete” and “succeed”. Using this method the researchers were able to unconsciously arouse goals related to achievement.