Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Know How Your Gut Reactions Are Fostered

Some ideas for how to train and guide your subconscious mind.

We all have implicit or subconscious assumptions, as noted in a prior post on assumptions undergirding White-European supremacy.

Implicit associations are a normal part of developing our understanding of the world. Our brains are pattern makers (Lent, 2017), automatically associating elements of our experience into a set of expectations/filters/frames for future experiences (“schemas;” Taylor & Crocker, 1981). The associations we build beginning in early life contribute to conceptual structures we carry with us into our subsequent experiences. For example, our view of relationships is thought to partly reflect what we learn from early experiences with caregivers (Crittenden, 1992).

Our cultures train our minds through the experiences the culture brings to us: media images and messages, stories we are told, where our attention is drawn. We imitate the role models around us—our parents, neighbors, peers, media characters. Particularly as children, we learn easily, without effort. We repeat the behaviors/words/attitudes that are encouraged by adults, peers and media.

For about 10 years, Camel cigarettes used to advertise with the cartoonish character, Joe Camel—until the parent company, R.J. Reynolds, could not adequately defend itself against the data, for example, a study showing that young children could better associate Joe with cigarettes than Mickey Mouse with the Disney logo. It was argued that Joe enticed young people to take up smoking and legal documents noted that teenage smoking vastly increased during those 10 years. Studies have indicated that children’s minds are easily “branded” through advertisements (Quart, 2003). All sorts of cartoon characters encourage children’s behavior toward others or toward consumption of particular products. Associations become stronger the more they are repeated.

We naturally assume that what we expect, based on our prior experiences, is the way things should be—they are normal and good. And we often presume that others perceive things the way we do and are shocked when they do not. It is tiring and frustrating to live with people who have different implicit assumptions. To test this out, try living in another culture for a while and you’ll likely go through the culture-shock pattern of (1) excitement at the charming differences, followed by (2) irritation bordering on hate (many people go home at this stage). But if you stay long enough, (3) you can develop an appreciation of both cultures’ unique features.

Psychologists do experiments on expectations or implicit assumptions people bring to situations. Here are two classic studies that shed some light on how our culture trains our minds to think about what is normal and good.

One of the propellants of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was a study of clinical psychologists regarding their views of healthy personalities (Broverman et al., 1970). The characteristics chosen by the clinicians to be representative of a healthy human were the same as those chosen for a healthy male. But the characteristics chosen as representative of a healthy female were those of an unhealthy human being. The minds of professionals seemed to be infiltrated with the dominant cultural narrative that placed (white) maleness as the baseline for normal human functioning. Jean Baker Miller referred to this study and similar studies as an inspiration for her book, Toward a New Psychology of Women.

In the middle of the 20th century, several “doll studies” were conducted that had a significant influence on overturning segregated schools. In the original studies, African American children were asked several questions and had to choose one of two dolls, a white one or a black one, as a response (e.g., which one is good, is bad, you’d like to play with). By and large, the majority selected the white doll. CNN recently sponsored a similar study with white and black children. Although the black children were somewhat more favorable toward the black dolls than their peers from the 1940s, the white children were more likely to choose the white dolls.

Again, this suggests the implicit baseline for what is normal and good is shaped by culture, even if it denigrates one’s own characteristics.

The NPR show Hidden Brain has an episode discussing implicit bias. The Implicit Associations Test (IAT) measures associations respondents have that are related to various “isms” (e.g., biases against race, sex, weight). Using big data, Eric Hehman examined whether there was a relation between IAT racism scores and the use of lethal force by police within a community. They found that the measures of implicit racial bias among White residents were associated with disproportionally greater use of lethal force against Blacks, adjusting for racial proportions.

Robin Hogarth (2001) summarized the research on how implicit assumptions or intuitions are shaped in multiple subconscious systems. He suggested selecting one’s activities and experiences carefully, but also more explicitly examining assumptions routinely. Here is a full list of his recommendations for learning from experience:

1. Select or create your environments. We adapt to our environments, rehearsing the rules and procedures that work in that environment.

2. Seek feedback on your assumptions.

3. Be mindful. Impose circuit breakers for automatic responses. Catch your stereotyping.

4. Acknowledge emotions as sources of information.

5. Explore connections among ideas and experiences. Use narratives and imagination to make connections logical thought does not make. Learn to see more.

6. Accept conflict in choice. Look at pros and cons. Remember: If you are not careful your preferences may be formed by others; you may select the most familiar type of choices (which become preferred for their familiarity).

7. Treat experiential learning as an experiment. Make the scientific method intuitive. (Gather information, test working hypotheses repeatedly, look for disconfirming evidence, get the opinion of informed others.)

The effortlessness of learning from immersed experience without awareness is why Aristotle suggested that we need mentors who guide our choices of activities and friendships—the things that shape our sensibilities, our perceptions of good and bad, our implicit assumptions. We need mentors until we can mentor ourselves.

Illustration by Con-Struct via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Aristotle. (1988). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.). London: Oxford.

Broverman, I. K., Broverman, D. M., Clarkson, F. E., Rosenkrantz, P. S., & Vogel, S. R. (1970). Sex-role stereotypes and clinical judgments of mental health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 34(1), 1–7.

Crittenden, P.M. (1992). Quality of attachment in the preschool years. Developmental Psychopathology, 4, 209-241.

Hehman, E., Flake, J.K., & Calanchini, J. (2018). Disproportionate use of lethal force in policing is associated with regional racial biases of residents. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9, 393-401.

Hogarth, R. M. (2001). Educating Intuition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lent, J. (2017). The patterning instinct: A cultural history of humanity’s search for meaning. New Ork: Prometheus Books.

Quart, A. (2003). Branded: The buying and selling of teenagers. New York: Perseus Books.

Taylor, S.E. & Crocker, J. (1981). Schematic bases of social information processing, in: E.T. Higgins, C.P. Herman, & M.P. Zanna (Eds) Social cognition: the Ontario symposium, vol. 1 (pp. 89-134). Hillsdale, NJ, Erlbaum.