Before You Know It, by John Bargh

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Martin Gross’s “The Psychological Society” excoriated the dominance of psychology in contemporary society. He let on that Freud’s notion of the unconscious has abnegated our conscientious responsibility. For millenniums, we thought being humans was unique. We were the center of the universe. Unlike other life forms, our conscious mind uniquely grants us freedom to make cognitive and moral choices. Then Copernicus (16th c.) posited that our earth is but a dinky planet in some remote corner of the universe. Then Darwin (19th c.) stripped our created peculiarity with the theory of evolution – that we evolved from lower life forms. Then Freud’s preponderance claimed that our conscious mind is superseded by the hidden forces of our unconscious. Ironically, the Age of Enlightenment has darkened the view of who we are in our cognitive self.

In recent years, John Bargh, a Yale psychology professor, and others have put a searchlight to this enigmatic human unconscious. “Before You Know It: the unconscious reasons we do what we do” is his latest monograph on the subject. His end notes and references are an impressive compendium of the latest researches. Their collective noetic understanding of our unconscious is a stark contrast to Freud’s dark and malevolent id. At every human encounter, our unconscious mind engages our past, present and future effects. Our choices and actions are influenced by hidden memories of our past and hidden desires for our future. Much of what we do is inexplicable because much of our assumptions, biases, fears, anxieties and insecurities are informed subconsciously by our past. Likewise, our expectations, desires, urges, ambitions, beliefs and hopes are shaped by the hidden motivations that affect what we will do. Because these influential pathos are hidden from our conscious, we are unwittingly clueless and helpless.

Yet citing numerous researches, Bargh concludes that our conscious mind is uniquely competent to acknowledge, recognize, accept, understand and manage our unconscious’ influences and motives. Here the Apostle Paul’s theological rectitude concurs with Bargh’s psychological probity. Bargh gives us three main applications (chapter 10 in his book): One, our cognitive conscious matters in our capacity to make choices. But our rational willfulness is not as skilled as we want. We have to work at it. Here Paul offers that the Spirit of God promised to set us free in Christ (Romans 8.1f). We are given conscious ability to probe our unconscious’ hidden influences. The more aware we are of the unconscious, the more able we are to deal with its hiddenness. Two, acknowledging that we do not possess competent freedom to introspect can be an empowerment in our cognitive processes. Again, Paul offers that the Spirit of Christ can make our free will more competent to choose (II Corinthians 3.4f). With habitual practices, we can be more adept to plumb our past and future’s hidden pathos. In time, a better awareness of their influence enables us to manage the unconscious more effectively. Three, only adequate self-control can stifle undesirable impulses. But self-control comes incrementally with habitual exercises. The more practices we exert to master the self, the more capable we are to master the unconscious impulses. Again, Paul provides the powers and motivations in Christ for better self-control. He writes that, “Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery . . . for the fruit of his Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5, italics mine).

“Before You Know It” is not a self-help book. It is more a studied understanding of the workings of our unconscious and conscious. To master the unconscious requires a clearer understanding of the unconscious and a competent mastery of the conscious. And that only comes with habitual, practices of self-mastery conscientiously and intentionally in our daily encounters.