Can impulse control be unconscious?


A new study suggests that subconscious cues might be able to alter outcomes in situations that require impulse control.

The ability to not eat a second cookie or have another drink, for example, has typically been associated with conscious choice. But now researchers are saying that abstaining from certain behaviors might be a process that operates without awareness or effort.

Inaction-related words can influence self-control

Through neuroscience research, a team from the University of Illinois and the University of Pennsylvania found that inaction-related words in one's environment can subconsciously influence self-control. A person who unconsciously overhears someone say "stop" during a party where alcohol is served, for example, might be triggered to refuse that next drink.

Volunteers in the study were asked to press a computer key when they saw the letter "X" appear on a screen or not press a key when they saw the letter "Y." During this process, subliminal messages flashed rapidly on the screen: action messages (like "run," "go," "start" or "move"), inaction messages (like "still," "calm," "rest" and "stop") and nonsense words.

And while the action or inaction messages didn't affect the actions of the volunteers, researchers did find that the words affected the participants' brain activity differently.

Heightened self-control

Exposure to inaction messages appeared to increase the activity of the brain's self-control process, while exposure to action messages decreased this activity.

Unconscious exposure to inaction words, therefore, might assist in self-control behaviors related to addiction, researchers explained:

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.

Subliminal audio recordings are an example of this type of process, which are widely available for different impulse-control issues, like smoking or overeating. According to the study, the ability of these products to use inaction-related words, however, would be key.

Results of the study are published in the journal Cognition.

Source: Psych Central

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