Why do we do the things we do? Humans have long attributed a great deal of behaviour and ‘instinct’ to the unconscious mind—the mysterious and difficult to explore part of our brains that, apparently, we have no control over. And it’s all too easy to blame this part of ourselves when we do things we don’t quite understand.

Ben Newell is a Professor in the UNSW School of Psychology and Director of the newly announced UNSW Institute for Climate Risk and Response. His research examines the cognitive processes underlying judgement, choice and decision making—and how this plays out across society.

He spoke at last week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival about the upcoming book Open Minded: Searching for Truth about the Unconscious Mind, which he co-authors with Professor David Shanks (University College London). Their research challenges the magnitude of the role of the unconscious mind in decision-making.

“This emphasis on the unconscious driving our behaviour and influencing our judgements, decisions and choices has been vastly over-emphasised,” Prof Newell said.

He said that recent popular approaches in psychology have elevated the long-standing idea that the unconscious mind drives a majority of human behaviour. But on closer examination, he found the evidence doesn’t stack up. And in many cases, studies can’t be replicated.

He says the conscious mind is more dominant than the unconscious—that we are, indeed, the authors of our own actions.

“The evidence that our decision-making is strongly influenced by information completely outside of our awareness is not supported by the science,” Prof Newell said.

His research interests can be tracked back to his final years studying science at high school. He saw further studies in psychology as a path to keep pursuing a love for science and the scientific method.

“I focused then on what continues to intrigue me today: why we do we behave the way we do?,” Prof Newell said.

This is when he became interested in exploring the evidence for unconscious influences on behaviour.

Credit: Melissa Lyne

Prof Shanks is a long-term collaborator. Together, he and Prof Newell have amassed years of studies in this area.

Prof Newell says their new book contests the widespread idea that likens the unconscious mind to the larger, bottom part of an iceberg that remains hidden under the water. According to long-held popular claims, this is where the brain processes information outside of human awareness.

“The appeal that our brains somehow decide for us unconsciously is seductive,” Prof Newell said. “But our brains should be considered as a single system, and one that we are in control of.”

He says a better metaphor for the mind is an ‘inverted iceberg’—where most of our thoughts and behaviours occur above the waterline.

“We need to own our decisions and not blame them on mysterious unconscious influences and processes that are outside of our control.”

Open Minded: Searching for Truth about the Unconscious Mind, is divided into two sections: the first examines the modern understanding of the conscious mind, and the second shifts the focus to how to reform current research. Here, Professors Newell and Shanks chart new possibilities for understanding how our minds actually work.

The book is available online and in bookstores from August 2023.