Don’t eat the cake don’t eat the cake don’t eat the cake. Sound familiar – as you stare down a slab of chocolate cheesecake that’s been conveniently left in your fridge? And are you going to end up eating the cake? Probably. Are you going to blame your lack of willpower? Maybe. Are you going to blame the person who put the cake there? Definitely. But none of that is really the full story – the blame can actually be partially attributed to your subconscious mind, the part of you making decisions and influencing your behaviour without you being consciously aware that it’s happening.
How does it work? Your conscious mind
The researchers Ramar, Loftus and Hagger say that there are two things going on at once when you make the decision to do something healthy (or not so healthy). There’s the conscious part of you, the logical, rational part that does things like goal set and make plans. It’s the good intentions. It’s the part you activate when you’re trying to use willpower – bringing to mind all the reasons why not to eat the cake. It’s the part of you that is activated and motivated by New Year’s Resolutions, 12 week weight loss challenges and infographics with inspirational slogans on them. So far so good, right?
The thing about this conscious, rational part is that we often don’t make full use of it. Most people who have vague notions that they ‘should be healthier’ don’t actually make specific, realistic, measurable goals with a good plan. This would really help! This is the chance for your conscious mind to shine. So if you have a vague goal around health, the first thing to do is to set up clear goals and plans and fully engage your conscious mind. A psychologist or coach like me is a great person to contact to help you set goals in a way that sets you up for success!
But some of us actually do engage our conscious mind. We plan. We set goals, we stick up motivational slogans around the house. And still don’t manage to not eat the cake. What’s up with that? Before you blame yourself for a lack of that elusive willpower, check out what your subconscious is actually doing.
Your subconscious mind
This is where it gets interesting. Our researcher friends Ramar, Loftus and Hagger say that your conscious mind is only half the story. You need to be aware of what messages you’re sending yourself subconsciously. This is a complex area, but here’s a simplification of the part that makes the most difference in terms of whether or not you eat the cake. Your subconscious mind remembers what happened in the past. It particularly remembers how certain things (activities, places, people) made you feel. And it directs you towards/away from these things based on what happened in the past. So when you see the cake, your subconscious remembers the good feelings that come with eating cake, and works against your conscious mind. Our subconscious usually wins. It’s ‘default’ mode and when you think about it, we spend most of our lives in this mode – it’s hard work and time consuming to think consciously about every single decision we need to make each day. Especially when you need to re-make the decision not to eat the cake every time you open the fridge.
Bonus fact: the subconscious mind is motivated by pleasure more than pain. It looks for what works, what feels good, and goes towards that. It’s less motivated by what didn’t work and more easily forgets that. Ever had someone tell you what not to do, without telling you what they do want? It’s not easy to work out how you should act! The subconscious is similar. It wants clear directions, and its GPS is fine tuned to pleasure.
Using the sub-conscious mind to your advantage
To effectively use your subconscious mind, you need to change your environment so that what you see reminds you of how good it feels to be healthy. First step: hide the cake. Second step: put on display items that remind you of the good feelings that come from being healthy. What does that mean? It means leaving your sneakers next to the bed so they’re the first thing you see when you wake up and are meant to be going for a run. It means attaching a personal photo of you (e.g. slimmer, engaged in fitness) to your motivational slogans. It means the first recipe in your recipe folder is for a meal that you really enjoyed, that’s part of your diet plan. It means putting that recipe, rather than the photo of your last decadent dessert, onto your facebook feed. Anything that you can connect to feeling good about being healthy needs to be on prominent display, and anything that makes you feel good about being unhealthy needs to be hidden (take down the photos of you with your mates drinking and put up photos of them without the drinks instead). That way, both parts of your mind are working towards your goal, and it’ll be much harder to be side-tracked.
As you practise being healthier, the feel-good associations with doing things that are good for you grow stronger and stronger, and after a while, your subconscious mind has a new ‘default’ setting towards making healthy choices. It easily remembers that going for a run feels good (at least afterwards) and it requires less conscious effort to put those sneakers on.
So there you have it. It wasn’t your fault you ate the cake. It wasn’t your lack of willpower. It was the fault of all the tasty cakes that went before, and your sub-conscious remembering them. But you can still place a little bit of blame on the friend that left the cake there too.