Accomplishing Our Goals

What Does a Cup of Coffee Have to Do With it?

Sep 30

Yale University professor and leading researcher John Bargh has focused a significant portion of his professional life on researching and understanding how unconscious thoughts work behind the scenes to impact our behavior, judgment and perceptions. His research demonstrates how our behaviors, judgment and perceptions can be impacted by something as simple as holding an ordinary cup of warm coffee.

Bargh, along with his colleague, Lawrence E. Williams from The University of Colorado, designed and conducted a research experiment to understand how the temperature of a held drink influences whether we like or dislike another person. The experiment was designed as follows:

Students on their way to the lab “ran into” a lab assistant who was juggling several things, including either an iced coffee or a warm cup of coffee. The students were asked to hold the cup for a short period of time while the lab assistant regained control of the things they were juggling. The students were asked later to rate a hypothetical person on various attributes. The experiment revealed that the participants judged others to be more generous and caring if they had just held a warm cup of coffee and less so if they had held an iced coffee beverage.

Based on these findings, Bargh and Williams decided to take this one step further and test the impact of “warmth” on the perception of adults. Both experiments led the researchers to conclude that “physical warmth can make us see others as warmer people, but also cause us to be warmer, more generous and trusting as well.”

Their research affirms that our unconscious mind is always functioning in the background making rational and irrational decisions that impact our judgment, perception and behavior. According to Bargh, our unconscious thoughts work as a type of “behavioral guidance system.” This guidance system offers us suggestions about how to assess others or what to do. We then act upon our unconscious thoughts before our conscious awareness can take over.

So what does our unconscious mind have to do with accomplishing our goals?

Goal research indicates that our unconscious thoughts can cue or trigger behaviors without the individual knowing about it or intending it.  They can impact our ability to pursue and accomplish important goals. The research shows that not only the goal itself is impacted but that the incentives associated with the goal can be manipulated unconsciously as well. Researchers have concluded that unconscious thought, therefore, influences and impacts goal attainment as much as our conscious thought about achieving the goal does (Aarts, Custers, and Holland 2007).

When it comes to achieving our goals, knowing that both unconscious and conscious thoughts influence goal pursuit and attainment can help us understand how or why we sometimes go off track despite our best conscious intentions. The current research and theories suggest that when you find yourself engaging in behaviors or making judgments that seem to differ from your intentional goals, your conscious mind is not the source of behaving that way. What is causing you to act out of alignment with your stated intentions is a response to your unconscious “behavioral guidance system” being triggered. The behavior or response is being cued up by your unconscious as a result of situational information, past similar experiences or environmental cues (i.e., a warm cup of coffee) or residual emotions. Our unconscious “behavioral guidance system” kicks in before our conscious mind can serve its function as gatekeeper and sense maker.

The next time you feel you have engaged in behavior that has taken you off course for achieving your goals, grab a warm cup of coffee and consider what unconscious thought is driving your behavior in the present. Understanding your unconscious behaviors, judgments, and perceptions can help you right the course and engage your conscious mind as a sense maker to help you get back on track.

Are you willing to consider this the next time you get off track? Let me know what you think in the comments field below.