The Nonconscious Mind: Helping or Hindering Physically Active Leisure?

My passion for understanding leisure behaviour means that I devote most of my research activities and academic reading attention to investigating and evaluating reasons why people do what they do during their leisure time. A few months ago, I came across an article written by a the social psychologists in our field (Seppo Iso-Ahola) that prompted me to think in a new way about the why we do what we do during our leisure time, or perhaps more accurately, why we do not do the things during our leisure time that might offer us the most satisfaction. Specifically, Iso-Ahola (2015) brought together research to discuss the role of the conscious and nonconscious mind in leisure behaviour.

Iso-Ahola (2015) set the stage for his discussion by wondering, quite simply, why some people spend 5 hours a day watching television – an activity research has found to leave people depleted and in the same or worse mood state than before they started watching (Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) while others are more active or engaged in challenging activities – which research indicates provides people with the most enjoyment from (Abuhamdeh & Csikszentmihalyi, 2012) during their available leisure time. He offers two possible explanations for why people do what they do: “(1) people are rational thinkers who carefully deliberate over choices and finally opt for what they think is best for them; they are cognitive decision-makers in accord with “slow” thinking. (2) Alternatively, their behavioral engagement is driven by automatic processes prompted nonconsciously by situational cues” (p. 299).

Fast versus Slow Thinking

Research suggests that we are “fast” thinkers most of the time and that our decisions or responses to situations are most often a result of intuitive, impulsive, automatic or nonconscious thinking (Kahneman, 2011) or “behavioural impulses” (Bargh & Morsella, 2008, p. 77). The behavioural impulses are derived from four sources: evolved motives and preferences, cultural norms and values,
past experiences in similar situations, and what other people are doing in the same situation
at a given time. Therefore, our impulses or fast thinking has roots in our everyday social lives and the stimulus cues in our environment.

The default system of fast thinking leads us toward choosing the easier or less straining leisure activities. This, then, can hinder us from choosing demanding behaviours like exercise especially when it is not part of our routine. But, the conscious, slow-thinking mind can still exert strong influence and even override the nonconscious mind (Baumeister, Masicampo, & Vohs, 2011). However, given the low rates of participation in physical activity and sport, there are clearly some challenges in activating the conscious, slow-thinking mind to engage in the more demanding leisure behaviour or exercise. I found the research related to self-control resources to be particularly insightful in understanding this further.

Self-Control Resources, The Conscious Mind, and Leisure Behaviours

Iso-Ahola (2015) explains that for many people work can be cognitively and/or physically straining or demanding. At work, we exert self-control throughout the day (e.g., focus on tasks, attend meeting we may not wish to; continue with a repetitive task that may bore or tire us; respond politely to rude customers). Work tasks that demand we exercise self-control can use up or deplete our limited self-control resources. This means we have few resources to resist the temptation of non-demanding activities when we get home and have opportunities for leisure. The depleted self-control resources plus the stimulus-cues such as television sets lead to the triggering of our nonconscious impulses that direct our behaviour – we sit and watch television. Other behaviours such as going for a walk or a fitness class or working on a challenging DIY project demand physical or cognitive effort and deliberate thinking. Simple behaviours (watching TV) become driven by the nonconscious mind. More complex behaviours (going to a fitness class), require the drive of the conscious mind.

Another perspective related to the notion of self-control is that leisure does not require us to self-regulate in the way that work and other demanding daily life tasks may. Therefore, once we have completed demanding tasks that required self-control, we feel justified in relaxing or rewarding ourselves (Inzlicht & Schmeichel, 2012). There is a motivational shift away from regulation and self-control toward gratification instead.

The question for me, then, became: Can more challenging leisure activities that could potentially be more satisfying and beneficial be regulated or routinized by situational cues (in the same way TV sets act as situational cues)?

Priming for Complex Leisure Behaviours

Research has suggested that conscious priming is needed to modify most complex behaviours, but that this is particularly the case with exercise behaviours (Iso-Ahola & Miller, 2016). Situational cues (like your pair of sneakers) can drive more demanding behaviour, but only after the behaviour has been repeated over a long period of time (Iso-Ahola, 2015). Nonconscious priming can occur after years of repeated performance, in part, because a habit has formed. Prior to something becoming a habit, the behaviour requires and benefits from conscious priming.

One strategy for conscious priming is having individuals self-affirm their core values and goals related to complex behaviours. This has been effective in countering self-regulatory exhaustion (ego depletion) and failures to engage in the demanding behaviour (Inzlicht & Schmeichel, 2012). For example, if one of your overarching goals is to be healthy and fit and you are highly committed to that goal, priming that goal (e.g., reminding yourself; writing about it) may shield you from conflicting goals (e.g., to relax) that may interfere with you engaging in your physical activity behaviour.

Responding to Self-Control Influences

The idea that we experience a depletion in self-control resources after a work day resonated with me. My work is mentally demanding. At the end of the day, I often sink into the couch and turn on the TV.  I then begin engaging in the “should” game – “I should clean the house,” “I should go for a walk,” and “I should read or knit or do anything but watch TV”. The “should-ing” is followed by the rationalizations to resolve the dissonance: “I deserve/need to relax”. And, as Iso-Ahola (2015) suggests, I frequently am successful in weaken any bit of motivation or commitment I had to more complex, demanding leisure behaviours.

I decided to experiment with the notion of depleted resources a little bit. What would happen if I made the decision to engage in physical activity before the work day started. Clearly, this is not a novel idea – many, many people do this. However, I wanted to implement this based on this new information I had that helped me understand why leaving exercising until the end of day resulted in my irregular involvement. As an adult, exercise has been neither a habit nor a simple behaviour. Therefore, engaging in physical activity takes conscious, deliberate thinking – something, according to Iso-Ahola (2015), I would theoretically have more resources for before I engaged in a full work day. Anecdotally, after a month of experimenting with this, I have found that I have the mental energy to convince myself to head to the treadmill first thing in the morning. Hardly scientific research, but I found it personally interesting how this one change was able to help me engage, more regularly, in a demanding leisure behaviour.

The research related to priming has suggested that writing your physical activity goals regularly or writing about what physical activity means in your life can help prime the behaviour (Inzlicht & Schmeichel, 2012). Therefore, it is possible that journaling about exercise could be effective – even writing a sentence or two each day about goals could activate awareness and conscious thinking. Something else to try if you need to activate your conscious, slow thinking mind.


It seems that the nonconscious mind can be help us to engage in demanding leisure activities such as physical activity…if that behaviour is a habit and part of our routine. Prior to it becoming a habit, it is a behaviour that requires us to activate our conscious mind. That may be easier to do prior to a long work day or it could be supported by setting goals and reminding oneself of the goals (e.g., to be physically active 4 times a week for 60 minutes) and how those goals relate to one’s core values (e.g., being healthy).


Abuhamdeh, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2012). The importance of challenge for the enjoyment, of intrinsically motivated, goal directed activities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(3), 317–330.

Bargh, J. A., & Morsella, E. (2008). The unconscious mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 73–79.

Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E., & Vohs, K. (2011). Do conscious thoughts cause behavior? Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 331–361.

Inzlicht, M., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). What is ego depletion? Toward a mechanistic revision of the resource model of self-control. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 450-463.

Iso-Ahola, S. (2013). Exercise: Why it is a challenge for both the nonconscious and conscious mind.
Review of General Psychology, 17, 93–110.

Iso-Ahola, S. E. (2015). Conscious versus nonconscious mind and leisure. Leisure Sciences, 37(4), 289-310.

Iso-Ahola, S. E., & Miller, M. W. (2016). Contextual priming of a complex behavior: Exercise. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3(3), 258-269.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrer, Straus, and Girox.

Kubey, R., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Television addiction. Scientific American, 286(2), 74-81.


















Tagged: , , , , , ,

I'm interested in your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: