Book review: Before You Know It

Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do is about how the nonconscious mind affects our choices, decisions, behaviors, moods, relationships, and performance. It’s an absolute must read if you want to get a better grasp on your thinking and habits.

John Bargh, PhD, writes about how we as humans are affected by forces within us and outside us without ever noticing it: The hidden past, the hidden present, and the hidden future.

  • Can the temperature of a room affect how generous or helpful you are?
  • What kind of music piped into a store will influence you to spend more?
  • What style of clothing should you avoid if you want to do well on a test?
  • Which imaginary superpower will turn conservatives into liberals?
  • When is it better to trust your gut?

Bargh has written a personal, funny, and engaging book. His ACME Lab at Yale (the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation Lab) invokes Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner as metaphors of the conscious mind (thinking it’s far more clever than it is) and the nonconscious mind (speedy and trumping all “supergenius” efforts). Bargh illustrates his research using everyday experiences that we all can identify with. If you didn’t believe that the nonconscious mind directs your behavior without you knowing it – you will be surprised.

“We strongly assume that what we are thinking and feeling is driven by what’s happening right now in front of us, and we hardly ever question that assumption,” Bargh writes. “Yet quite often something more than what is right here and now is acting upon us. It is the past – our species’ ancient past, our unique unremembered infant past, and our very recent past, just now receding in the rearview mirror of our day. All of these different yesterdays matter, because they are still affecting the most important moment in every person’s life – the only moment Einstein believed actually existed – the present.”

Some of the influences of the nonconscious mind are so invisible, that people confidently deny they exist, but scientists are measuring the effects. By learning about them, you can protect yourself from bad choices and live a more intentional and satisfying life.

“The most effective self control is not through willpower and exerting effort to stifle impulses and unwanted behaviors,” Bargh says. “It comes from effectively harnessing the unconscious powers of the mind to much more easily do the self-control for you.” He devotes a whole chapter to measurable steps toward taking better control over your thoughts and actions.

A terrific read.