Odds are 1 in 275,000

What would you think if I told you had a 1 in 275,000 chance of really knowing all that’s going on with you? According to science your subconscious processes about 11 million bits of information per second. Wow! On the other hand, your conscious brain only processes about 40 bits of information during that same second. What?? That’s right, your subconscious is processing 275,000 bits of information for every bit that your conscious brain is handling. 

Granted, most of that processing deals with information you don’t need to actively focus on (hint: that’s why the subconscious does it) like your heartbeat, breathing, body temperature, and other bodily regulation. The subconscious is also dealing with the environment; sights, sounds, odors, and other stimuli. Only when something in the environment is novel or threatening does it come to the surface of your consciousness. Be thankful for that because if you had to consciously think about every aspect of your body and the environment you wouldn’t have time for anything else and you’d be exhausted.

Awareness and Unawareness

When you become aware of how much you’re unaware of then it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that most of what you do is outside of your conscious mind control. That doesn’t mean you’re randomly bouncing around like a rubber ball in a box throughout your day. There are certainly patterns to your thinking and behavior. However, those patterns are driven in large part by your subconscious, the old tapes that are playing in the background of your head. 

Salespeople have known this for a long time and put it this way, “People buy based on emotion then justify with logic.” Science seems to confirm this. You take some action then come up with a reason you believe you did what you did.

What’s Motivating You?

Beyond subconscious vs. conscious, your brain wiring plays into this big time. In Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, authors Ori and Rom Brafman cite some fascinating brain research around motivation and actions.

When you’re motivated by rewards a particular part of the brain Ori and Rom call the “pleasure center” (nucleus accumbens) is activated. When you engage in altruistic tasks another part of the brain they call the “altruism center” (posterior superior temporal sulcus) is activated. 

Here’s the fascinating thing; science has determined the pleasure and altruism centers cannot be active at the same time. In other words, you either do something for altruistic reasons or for some type of reward that will give you pleasure. 

Let’s consider giving as an example. When you donate money to a charitable cause, no matter the motivation for your act of giving, the recipient will benefit. That’s good. When it comes to giving, I’m sure most people would “convince” themselves they’re donating out of kindness and a desire to help. A brain scan might reveal something quite different. Some people might have done it out of the goodness of their hearts whereas others really wanted a tax break. Whatever the reason, the scan doesn’t lie; it’s either altruistic or pleasure driven no matter what you believe. 

Historical Reference

When I first learned about this I was reminded of a passage in the Bible. Jesus said the Pharisees (religious leaders of the day) practiced their religion to be seen by people, not out of a love of God. As a result, they had their reward in full, the admiration of man but not God.

Here’s another notable difference between altruistic acts and momentary pleasures; unlike pleasure, which often requires more and more, altruistic acts don’t take as much to be triggered in the brain and the good feelings linger longer. 


I’ll close with a quote I’ve shared many times over the years. Ben Franklin correctly surmised, “Three things are extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Way back in the 1700s Ben didn’t have scientific research to back up that claim, so we’ll just assume he got lucky, perhaps 1 in 275,000 chance of being right. 

Brian Ahearn

Brian Ahearn is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach, and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s first book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was named one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by BookAuthority. His second book, Persuasive Selling for Relationship Driven Insurance Agents, was an Amazon new release bestseller in several categories. 

Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses on persuasive selling and coaching have been viewed by more than 400,000 people around the world.

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