Unconscious Will: How the Pursuit of Goals Operates Outside of Conscious Awareness: Science Mag

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Problem: Clients, against the best efforts of their professional advisors, make and enact bad investment decisions. 

Challenges:

  • Client’s often consciously say they will follow advice properly execute decision made with advisor but other mental factors drive them in opposite directions
  • Stress, illness and aging make these behaviors more likely
  • Science is increasingly telling us that involuntary, impulsive and reactive brain processes drive self-harming behavior

Crux Question: Is some key client goal-setting and goal-directed behavior actually instinctive and unconscious?

Solution:  Neuroscience is offering ways to understand and effect client’s self-harming behaviors.

Helping Clients Avoid Their Own Bad Behavior

We all are continuously assessing and working to guide our investment client’s behaviors away from harmful outcomes and towards good outcomes. 

Neuroscience is accumulating evidence that can help us understand what drives client’s behaviors – especially those that hurt them.

Brain science is more and more useful in helping us understand and just be aware.   We then have new knowledge to craft tools and strategies to help our clients more.

The brain science also helps us add to descriptive, behavioral models and look at what in the brain drives our client’s behaviors.  

Though, it seems a bit abstract and theoretical, the current neuro-explorations of how the brain sets and pursues goals and the role of consciousness are actually getting more interesting.

For example, it appears that we are all often unconscious in our goal-setting and pursuits.   Below is an example of some new evidence. R&C
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(Original research report abstract) authors – Ruud Custers and Henk Aarts

“People often act in order to realize desired outcomes, or goals.  Although behavioral science recognizes that people can skillfully pursue goals without consciously attending to their behavior once these goals are set, conscious will is considered to be the starting point of goal pursuit.

Indeed, when we decide to work hard on a task, it feels as if that conscious decision is the first and foremost cause of our behavior. That is, we are likely to say, if asked, that the decision to act produced the actions themselves.

Recent discoveries, however, challenge this causal status of conscious will.

They demonstrate that under some conditions, actions are initiated even though we are unconscious of the goals to be attained or their motivating effect on our behavior.  Here we analyze how goal pursuit can possibly operate unconsciously.”

(Commentary on the research from: Link)

Goal Pursuit Outside Our Conscious Awareness
The challenge is to understand the “I-Illusion”: how our sense of authorship and agency is an illusion.

People often act in order to realize desired outcomes, or goals.  Although behavioral science recognizes that people can skillfully pursue goals without consciously attending to their behavior once these goals are set, conscious will is considered to be the starting point of goal pursuit.

Indeed, when we decide to work hard on a task, it feels as if that conscious decision is the first and foremost cause of our behavior.  That is, we are likely to say, if asked, that the decision to act produced the actions themselves.

Recent discoveries, however, challenge this causal status of conscious will.  They demonstrate that:

  • Goals themselves can arise and operate unconsciously
  • Actions are initiated even though we are unconscious of the goals to be attained or their motivating effect on our behavior
  • Social situations and stimuli in the surroundings activate or prime goals in our minds outside of our awareness, thereby motivating and guiding us.

Figure – The proposed mechanism for unconscious goal pursuit.

Neuroimaging research has discovered that:

  • Reward cues are processed by limbic structures such as the nucleus accumbens and the ventral striatum
  • These subcortical areas play a central role in determining the rewarding value of outcomes and are connected to frontal areas in the cortex that facilitate goal pursuit
  • These reward centers in the brain respond to evolutionarily relevant rewards such as food and sexual stimuli, but also to learned rewards (such as money or status), or words (such as good or nice) that are associated with praise or rewards
  • This demonstrates that regardless of their shape or form, such positive stimuli induce a reward signal that is readily picked up by the brain.

Other recent research has demonstrated that subliminal primes that are specifically related to rewards can motivate people to increase the effort they invest in behaviors. … Moreover, this effect was accompanied by activation in the brain areas that play a role in reward processing and the recruitment of effort for action…

These findings indicate that conscious and unconscious reward cues have similar effects on effort and flexible cognitive processing, which suggests that conscious awareness of rewards is not needed for goal pursuit to occur.

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