The Subconscious; the Dark Matter of our Psychology

Something I do when I’m on the treadmill is read on my Kindle or watch documentaries. I recently finished Quark Science on Amazon and the episode on dark matter grabbed my attention because it reminded me of something from psychology.

What is this mysterious thing scientists call dark matter? According to it is, “Unseen matter that may make up more than ninety percent of the universe. As the name implies, dark matter does not interact with light or other electromagnetic radiation, so it cannot be seen directly, but it can be detected by measuring its gravitational effects.”

As I watched I thought about the dark matter of our minds – our subconscious.

More than 90% of the Universe and Your Being

Dark matter is thought to make up more than 90% of our universe. If it makes up so much you’d think you’d readily see it. If you can’t see it, you may think perhaps it doesn’t really exist. Our subconscious is very similar.

In Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy author Martin Lindstrom looks at the buying habits of people as they pertain to thought, feelings and emotions. Lindstrom contends that 85% of our decisions and/or actions are driven by the subconscious. Leonard Mlodinow puts that number at 95% in his book Subliminal: How Your Subconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.

Let’s split the difference and call it 90%. That means 9 out of every 10 of your thoughts and/or actions are driven by something you’re completely unaware of, something you cannot readily access.

Cannot Be Seen But Can Be Measured

In much the same way that dark matter cannot be seen, neither is your subconscious “seen” in the sense that it’s not accessible to the conscious mind. If it were, then we’d call it your conscious mind.

But we know we have a subconscious even though most of the time we’re completely unaware of it. That’s because we see the effects of our subconscious on what we think, how we feel and what we do.

A Dark Matter Personal Story

Have you ever had someone confront you about something you were completely unaware of? If so, you may have resisted what they had to say. That happened go me and it wasn’t until decades later that I could finally see it.

When I was a junior in high school I was suspended for three days for swearing at a teacher. We had a confrontation in the library and she told me if I didn’t like what she had to say I could leave. A 17-year-old full of testosterone I blurted out, “Fine! I don’t give a damn, I’m gonna get the hell out of here!” I stormed out and she caught me in the hallway. To her credit, she gave me every opportunity to apologize but I was angry and refused. Next came the punishment.

If you would have told me my uncharacteristic angry outburst had to do with my parents going through a divorce I would have denied it. I would have insisted with every fiber in my being that the teacher was the problem and it had nothing to do with my parents. Looking back, I now know divorce has a huge impact on kids, whether or not they realize it at the time.

The moral of the story is simply this; I was unaware of what was driving my emotions and behavior. Based on my understanding of psychology I know I’m not alone.


Most people don’t know why they think, feel and do what they do because seldom do they have time for self-reflection. If asked about their thoughts, feelings and actions, they will come up with a reason – a rationalization – but most of the time it’s not completely accurate because they are unaware of the dark matter that actually drives them.

To Do This Week

Maybe you’re like the millions of self-quarantined people who have a little more time on hand than usual. Take some of that time to do some self-reflection. Occasionally pause and ask yourself:

  • Why do I think that?
  • How come I feel this way?
  • Why did I do that?

Ben Franklin said, “Three things are extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” I think knowing yourself is the most valuable of the three.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, 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 planet on the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was a top 10 selling Amazon book in several insurance categories and top 50 in sales & selling. His LinkedIn Learning courses on sales and coaching have been viewed by more than 100,000 people around the world!

Just Because Something Doesn’t Grab You by the Grey Matter Doesn’t Mean It Doesn’t Matter

Because I spend so much time studying and teaching persuasion certain things catch my attention more than the average person. But, just because something doesn’t grab you by the grey matter doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. What I’m saying is this; even when something doesn’t register in your conscious, if it hits your subconscious it can still have a big, big impact on your behavior.

The genesis of this post was an Arby’s commercial I noticed this past weekend. The spokesperson said, “Now at Arby’s, you can get 30 gyros for $90. Or, for those who aren’t trying to cater a Greek family reunion, they’re two for $6.” Click here to watch the commercial.

You might be thinking, “Big deal, gyros are $3 in either case.” While that’s true, what you don’t realize is that Arby’s positioning makes you more likely to buy some gyros. Why? Because of the psychological phenomenon known as contrast.

The contrast phenomenon highlights the fact that you can change how someone experiences something by what you present immediately before making your ultimate request.

Here is an example from Robert Cialdini’s New York Times best-selling book Presuasion. He cites the story of a friend who, before presenting a $75,000 contract told the prospective client, “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this.” The client agreed and didn’t flinch at the $75,000 fee. This friend of Cialdini’s said such an approach almost always takes price off the table as an objection. Why? Because compared to a million dollars $75,000 seems much smaller than if it were presented outright with no other context.

Imagine for a moment that same individual saying, “I’d love to only charge you $1 (in a joking tone) but I have to ask for $75,000.” Compared to $1 the fee seems very high and it creates a completely different impression. I know an approach like this would lead to far fewer signed contracts than mentioning a million dollars first.

Let’s go back to Arby’s. It’s not too likely that anyone will spend $90 on 30 gyros but mentioning this makes buying two for just $6 seem much better. What if Arby’s tried to be funny and said, “One-third of a gyro for $1 but we know you’re hungry so why not get two for $6?” With that approach $6 seems like a lot more than $1 so it’s a sure bet their sales would not be nearly as good compared to the approach they’re currently going with.

I point this out to help you in two ways. First, sometimes people focus more on being funny and engaging when they try to get people to take action but only end up hurting their chances when they make the wrong comparison.

Second, what comes first matters. When you want to make your best offer shine, think about a comparison that will do that for you then make sure you position that comparison before you make your ultimate ask. Think $1 million vs. $75,0000, not $1 vs. $75,000.

A strategic approach as I’ve outlined may not grab someone by the grey matter (focused attention) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter because the approach still registers in the subconscious where 85%-95% of all decision making happens.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC and Learning Director for State Auto Insurance. His Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed nearly 150,000 times! If you’ve not watched it yet click here to see what you’ve been missing. The course will teach you how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.

It’s All About Conditioning

When I was young and heard the word “conditioning,” my thoughts immediately went to football. I associated conditioning with getting in shape. That meant sprints, weights and various drills repeated over and over to ready my body for the physical demands that were to come on Friday nights in the fall.

Now I hear “conditioning” and think about the automatic responses I have to so many things in life. You have them, too. The automatic responses we all encounter come from repeated exposure to certain stimuli. For example:

  • Red light means stop.
  • Green light means go.
  • Someone makes an offer we don’t want but we still say, “No thanks,” even though we might not be thankful for the offer.

If you believe you’re in total control of your daily decisions I have some bad news for you – you aren’t. Psychologists estimate the automatic responses within our subconscious drive 85%-95% of our behavior. In other words, you’re consciously, thoughtfully, deciding what to do maybe 10%-15% of the time.

But, there’s hope! When you start to understand this you can begin to make different choices. You may not catch yourself in the moment but even dissecting your thoughts and behavior afterwards can be beneficial.

Here’s a personal example. I have a reminder on my phone that pops up every morning that reads, “I will approach everything with a positive attitude and I will learn from every situation.” It’s a reminder to maintain a positive attitude about whatever I may encounter. However, if I realize after the fact that my attitude was bad (frustrated driving to work, impatient waiting in line, snapped at Jane), that little mantra reminds me that I can still try to figure out what led to my less than positive attitude or behavior.

I can’t change the past but sometimes saying I’m sorry and acknowledging I could have behaved better goes a long way. Dale Carnegie understood this when he wrote, “When you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” More recently, social psychologists like Robert Cialdini show that admitting weakness (saying “sorry” fits the bill) can actually help you because you’re viewed as being trustworthy.

As you learn to reflect and admit mistakes you’ll become more aware the next time you find yourself in a situation where your attitude needs adjustment in the moment.

And then there’s responsibility. A great way to think about responsibility is “the ability to respond.” Your response doesn’t have to be automatic; it can be thoughtful and purposeful.

Conditioning isn’t all bad. It helped me get ready for football and lots of other sports. It also helps each of us navigate our days without having to expend an inordinate amount of time and energy on every little decision.

However, not all routines and responses are good. We can become oblivious to bad patterns we’ve developed over the years and that’s where we need to choose to incorporate some responsibility. This week see if you can catch yourself in the moment and try to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you miss opportunities in the moment don’t worry because at some point during the day you can take a few moments to reflect. Ben Franklin said, “Three things are hard; diamond, steel and to know ones self.” In the long run knowing yourself will be worth far more than diamonds or steel.

The Hidden Recesses of Your Mind

The human mind is perhaps the greatest creation in the universe. In the past century we’ve started to unlock the mysteries of the mind through scientific study. Here are a few interesting brain facts:

  • Your brain consumes approximately 20 percent of your calories but accounts for about 2 percent of your weight.
  • It’s not true that we only use 10 percent of our brains.
  • There 100 billion neurons in the brain, six times more than the number of people on earth.

Several weeks ago I wrote a post called What The Hell Were You Thinking? and shared stories about how we often do things but don’t realize why we do them. Malcolm Gladwell explored this in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He shared several studies that showed mere exposure to words and ideas can change people’s behavior. For example:

  • People exposed to words typically associated with the elderly walked slower after seeing the words.
  • People who wrote a paragraph about the last book they read got more Trivial Pursuits questions correct than those who wrote about a fight at a soccer game.

The reason this is top of mind is because of something that happened not too long ago. I was in the middle of replying to an email when I realized I was supposed to be on a conference call. I dialed in but kept my eye on the emails coming in regarding the issue I was involved with.

After a few minutes a young coworker I’ve been mentoring resolved the issue to the delight of another coworker. His handling of the situation was brilliantly orchestrated so I replied, “Well–played, maestro.” I pasted a picture of a maestro in the email to be light-hearted.

When I returned my full attention to the conference call it leaped out at me when the vendor we were talking to referred to a version of their product called…Maestro!

When I referred to my coworker as maestro and pasted the picture in the email I had no recollection, none whatsoever, of that word having been mentioned on the call! But without a doubt it was fixed in my subconscious and impacted my behavior just as Gladwell described in his book.

This brings to mind a time when Jane told me about a dream she had. In the dream she described a woman with a red top and white pants. It was no coincidence to me that the night before we’d met a woman, a friend of a friend, who was wearing a red top and white pants. Jane didn’t remember meeting her but it was apparent that despite the lack of memory it was the reason for the woman in her dream.

The human brain is fascinating and despite all we know there is much we still have to learn. For you and I it’s important to understand that things our brain has taken in, but doesn’t consciously process, impact much of what we say and do. Every now and then we should pause and ask ourselves why we do what we do because not all of our decisions are good ones. When we make bad decisions we need to correct them before they become detrimental or before they become bad habits.