It’s awe-some what our brains can crunch through and figure out subconsciously—and equally humbling how influenced we can be without any conscious awareness of the influence.


I watched David Kwong’s TED Talk “Two Nerdy Obsessions Meet—And It’s Magic” yesterday morning and was instantly struck by two things:

  • How much sub-conscious/subliminal cues affect our actions
  • How the fact that human beings are hard-wired to solve problems and create order cuts two ways for co-active coaching

Spoiler alert: You might want to watch the talk now, before reading on.

The power of sub-conscious influence

What Gwen would do—her brain’s unconscious response to David’s presentation—was so predictable that David felt confident enough to not only put his prediction in a sealed envelope, but also to include it in a published NY Times crossword puzzle.  That wasn’t a good guess or playing the odds, that was brain science at work.  And that brain science shows that by planting certain subliminal cues into his presentation, David essentially directed how Gwen would color in each drawing.  Awesome—and terrifying!  What societal, familial, workplace, and peer-group messages are driving my choices and actions without me ever realizing it?  How can I raise my conscious awareness and question the norms, stereotypes, and skewed judgments?

Some may argue that David’s prediction wasn’t really that impressive, since the marker and animal options were limited to what David offered Gwen, he controlled the order in which she colored them, and the time between the presentation and the coloring was incredibly short.  Sure, it was an artificial setting, but also more realistic than that critique suggests.  We are bombarded by messages and cues throughout the day, almost every day—from the people we interact with, media we take in (consciously and unconsciously), the zeitgeist—so we are rarely far from influences.  And many of the messages/cues present us with ways to think about things and act that are akin to the pre-drawn animals and pre-selected marker colors.  Did an employee make an understandable mistake that they learned from and won’t repeat, or does the mistake signal they are unqualified for the job?  If someone loses something or misses an appointment, are they having a bad day, simply human, or perpetually disorganized?  Is option A or B better?

But why stick with only the offered options?  Why not ask for a pink marker, use two colors for one animal, or refuse to color in an animal?  Why not option C, a bit of option A plus a bit of option B, or none of the above?   David’s trick reminds me that it’s a good idea to sometimes slow down and consider why I have certain immediate reactions or default responses.  What is my programming, and do I actually want to follow it?  What are other possibilities?

We are hard-wired to solve problems and create order

As a co-active coach®,  this idea resonates with me in two ways.  First, it coincides with the co-active philosophy that people can solve their own problems and find the best way forward for themselves.  That’s why I don’t problem-solve for coaching clients.  Instead, I help them to get clear on their values and priorities, fully experience their feelings about a situation, and see different perspectives and options; then I support my clients and hold them accountable as they chose what to do and take action.  And it works!  Because as David demonstrated, my trust in my clients isn’t blind faith, it’s grounded in science: we are born with the abilities to find meaning, draw connections, and solve problems.  (If you still aren’t certain, watch babies and toddlers for a while; they do a ton of investigating, experimenting, and figuring out.)

On the other hand, the human tendency to find order, devise solutions, and get out of uncertainty quickly can cause us to act sooner than we should.  Sometimes it’s good to stay in the chaos, questions, and unknowns for a bit.  To fully feel our feelings rather than brushing past them.  (There is a lot of information and wisdom in those emotions!)  To take the time to notice the boxes we’re thinking in and then think differently or bigger—or get clear on how staying inside the box serves us.  That is why I sometimes slow down clients and help them just sit and feel for a bit.  It isn’t always comfortable or immediately fun to stew in your emotional juices; sometimes I have to steer a client back to their feelings repeatedly.  But in the end, clients are glad they sat and processed, or reconsidered whether the supposed limitations—the boxes—were as confining as they believed.

(And by the way, not all emotions are heavy.  Sometimes we slow down to celebrate and revel in joy, success, and fun.  Feeling the good is just as important as feeling the challenging.)

I clicked on the TED Talk thinking I was just going to see some cool tricks, but got a whole lot more.  Aaah, TED Talks!

P.S.  I really want to try this experiment on friends and family: play the first part of David’s talk, then have people color in the animals without looking at the screen.  I’m really curious how many people would color in the animals in the predicated way, and how the results would change if people had more marker colors to choose from.  If you try it, please let me know your results!

Want to learn more about unconscious influences?

Alexandra Marchosky
Alexandra Marchosky
I coach individuals and organizations to do and be better by more fully living their values.
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