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Unconscious Mind Aids Pursuit of Long-Term Goals

A new study suggests that while you may not know it, your unconscious feelings about objects in the environment inspire your long-term goals.

Alberta School of Business researcher Sarah Moore, Ph.D., and colleagues studied how the unconscious mind responds to objects in relation to an individual’s goals. Moreover, how the unconscious continues to influence feelings about these objects once the goals are reached—whether or not the outcome has been successful.

“In the past few years, we recognized that some of [Sigmund] Freud’s ideas on the unconscious mind were, in fact, correct and that a lot of our decision-making and a lot of our feelings are based on things that we’re not really aware of,” said Moore.

“In our study, we looked at how our unconscious feelings about objects in the environment influence how we pursue goals.”

Moore noted that previous studies have shown that when it comes to short-term, finite goals, such as responding to basic needs (for example, thirst or hunger), the unconscious will evaluate objects and form preferences based on whether the object will help an individual achieve the goal.

For example, when thirsty, items such as a water fountain or a bottle of Coke will be seen favorably, while a chocolate bar or KFC sign would not.

However, she explains that, once the goal is reached, those same objects will be evaluated differently.

“Once your thirst is quenched, you don’t evaluate the water fountain positively anymore because you’ve accomplished the goal,” she said,” but there are differences when we look at long-term goals.”

Moore studied how our unconscious influences our longer-term goals, such as getting in shape or undertaking educational pursuits.

For both types of goals, she says, the process is similar in that the unconscious identifies and then responds positively to objects and triggers in the environment that support the goal.

However, the unconscious deals differently with short and long-term goals. Short-term goals are finite and do not continue in the unconscious.

For long-term goals, the unconscious will continue to positively value objects related to the goals even after a level of success has been achieved.

She says this phenomenon points to the indeterminate nature of the goal.

“In some sense, we’re never ‘finished’ long-term goals,” said Moore.

“If we successfully finish the small steps toward our long-term goals, it becomes a cycle: we take a small step, we succeed, we feel good about it; therefore, we continue to feel good about the long-term goal. This process makes us more likely to take the next small step toward achieving that goal.”

What was surprising for the researchers was how participants in their study reacted to objects after a failure. While the researchers expected the participants who failed to react negatively or express dislike for objects related to their test goal, Moore and her colleagues found that failure resulted in a neutral view of the objects.

“You don’t hate the objects related to the goal because that goal is very important to you in the long run,” said Moore.

“Your unconscious is telling you ‘now is not the time to pursue the goal. You just failed, let’s leave it alone for awhile. We’re not going to pursue these objects in the environment; we’re going to switch to some other goal.'”

Source: University of Alberta

Unconscious Mind Aids Pursuit of Long-Term Goals

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Unconscious Mind Aids Pursuit of Long-Term Goals. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Aug 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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