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Is Unconscious Self-Control Possible?

Is Unconscious Self-Control Possible?A new study posits that we can program our bodies to unconsciously say no to temptation.

Traditional psychological theory held that saying no to illegal drugs, unhealthy food or excess consumption of alcohol required a conscious effort.

New research suggests this is not the case, and that inhibitory self-control – not picking up a cigarette, not having a second drink, not spending when we should be saving – can operate without our awareness or intention.

In the study, scientists demonstrated through neuroscience research that inaction-related words in our environment can unconsciously influence our self-control.

Although we may mindlessly eat cookies at a party, stopping ourselves from overindulging may seem impossible without a deliberate, conscious effort.

However, it turns out that overhearing someone – even in a completely unrelated conversation – say something as simple as “calm down” might trigger us to stop our cookie-eating frenzy without realizing it.

The findings were reported in the journal Cognition by Justin Hepler, University of Illinois and Dolores Albarracín, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

For the study, volunteers were given instructions to press a computer key when they saw the letter “X” on the computer screen, or not press a key when they saw the letter “Y.”

Their actions were affected by subliminal messages flashing rapidly on the screen. Action messages (“run,” “go,” “move,” “hit,” and “start”) alternated with inaction messages (“still,” “sit,” “rest,” “calm,” and “stop”) and nonsense words (“rnu,” or “tsi”). The participants were equipped with electroencephalogram recording equipment to measure brain activity.

The unique aspect of this test is that the action or inaction messages had nothing to do with the actions or inactions volunteers were doing, yet researchers found that the action/inaction words had a definite effect on the volunteers’ brain activity.

Unconscious exposure to inaction messages increased the activity of the brain’s self-control processes, whereas unconscious exposure to action messages decreased this same activity.

“Many important behaviors such as weight loss, giving up smoking, and saving money involve a lot of self-control,” the researchers noted.

“While many psychological theories state that actions can be initiated automatically with little or no conscious effort, these same theories view inhibition as an effortful, consciously controlled process. Our research challenges the long-held assumption that inhibition processes require conscious control to operate.”

Experts say the research suggests health behaviors can be significantly improved if we can learn to tap into the inaction-related words that keep us from overindulging.

The full article will be available in the hard copy issue of the journal.

Source: University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication

Abstract of brain activity photo by shutterstock.

Is Unconscious Self-Control Possible?

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). Is Unconscious Self-Control Possible?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 9 Aug 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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