To what extent are we free? – Experiments with the subconscious


“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other” – Eric Hoffer


The experiments you are about to read have nothing to do with virtual electroshocks (The beast within us – The Milgram experiment), neither animals were tortured while they were conducted (Mothers made from wire – love in the laboratory), nor are as famous as Asch’s (Pick the wrong line – Asch’s experiment).

But they do contribute to help us tackle an age-old issue: Has man free will?


The experiments were conducted by John Bargh at Yale University after 2010.

Regarding the first one, the subjects (students) had to walk a long corridor to reach Bargh’s office. There, the following words were given to them:

  1. him was worried she always
    2. are from Florida oranges temperature
    3. ball the throw toss silently
    4. shoes give replace old the
    5. he observes occasionally people watches
    6. be will sweat lonely they
    7. sky the seamless gray is
    8. should not withdraw forgetful we
    9. us bingo sing play let
    10. sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

Every student was assigned to make a correct sentence, using four of the words in each case.

Go on, have a go!
For instance: 1. She was always worried.

The subjects completed the test and then walked out without anything shocking. But as they were leaving, it took them longer to walk down the corridor than before. Why did that happen?

Among the scattered words, Bargh had inserted some connoted (semantically) to old age, like Florida, bingo, wrinkle, withdraw.

Pay attention to this!  The students were Americans. Florida is a place where old people are withdrawn to play bingo and wrinkle under the sun.

Bargh had primed words connoted to elderly and this affected their behavior.

Does the conclusion seem oversimple to you? Wait till you read the next – and more refined– experiment.


In this case, there were two groups and each one‘s subconscious was affected by different factors.

In the first group, let us name it The Quiet Group, there were floated words like: respect, discreet, appreciate, patiently, polite and civilized.

In the second group, let us name it The Hasty Group, there were floated words like: aggressively, daring, abrupt, disturb, disrupt, intrude, violate.

The rest of the words of each sentence were such, so the students would not use or pay any particular attention to the selected words.


After making sentences, the students would go to the next office to get instructions from the experimenter about what to do next. They would find him engaged in a conversation with a colleague of his.

How much time would the students wait until they interrupted them? And what were the discrepancies between the two groups, the Quiet and the Hasty one?

Don’t rush to answer the questions.


When Bargh asked the University authorities for permission and resources, they imposed a time limit: the students-subjects would be allowed to wait up to ten minutes and no more.

Bargh went along with it, even though he laughed at the pointless restriction.

“They are New-Yorkers” he told them. “Who would wait the man in charge for ten minutes to end up with his babbling? I will pronounce myself satisfied if the discrepancies between the two teams range from 20 to 30 seconds. Make it a whole minute”.

Bargh was off the mark. He was wide off the mark.

The Hasty students interrupted within a few minutes – five minutes was the longest.

The Quiet students (in 82%) DID NOT INTERRUPT!

They waited, patiently and politely until the ten minutes were up and the man in charge thanked them for their participation.

“I wonder”, said Bargh in disbelief, “if there wasn’t a time limit, how long would they wait?”


The conclusion was the following: the scattered words with which the students were primed affected their behavior. They believed that they were patient because they meant to, because that was their disposition, because it was their decision.

But had they been given different words, they would have acted accordingly. Was their choice a free one and up to what point?


The unsurprising paradox (as we have seen it before in Asch’s experiment) is that when Bargh revealed to the subjects the real goal of the experiment, they did not accept that they were subconsciously manipulated. They professed that they acted as always (what a coincidence!)


The psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson thought of a more extreme version of the experiment above.

This time all students were people of colour. They were asked to answer twenty questions from a GRE test – the standardized procedure to gain admission to Graduate Schools in the United States.

The priming this time was this: Before they begin with the test, they were asked to fill in a questionnaire regarding personal information: First name, last name, date of birth, ID number etc.

But half of the subjects had one more entry to fill in: They should write if they were black or white!

The black students that were asked about their colour fared half as good compared to who were not.

A reminder that they live in a racist society where men of colour find themselves in a disadvantageous position would suffice to act accordingly.


Once again, it was unsurprising that when they were told the actual goal of the experiment, the students refused that they were influenced. They said they were under the weather that day or they were not so smart for this test.

Anything, any excuse, just not to admit that they had been manipulated, that their choice was not free.


Regarding other experiments related to subconscious manipulation, the thought that the subject was a professor or a hooligan, before the test begins, would do the trick to improve or deteriorate their performance.


In conclusion:

We want to believe that we act freely, that it is us who decides for what we do. This concept holds some water. The big question is, who is ME.

We are much more than what we are aware of. If we call Mind what we are aware of, there is something greater that controls us. No, I’m not referring to god or destiny.

It is our brain, the great regulator.

The brain functions unconsciously. It is influenced by a myriad of parameters, internal or external, that mind fails to handle all of them.

The decisions are made subconsciously by the brain. Then the mind takes over to rationalize every reaction.


Why did we fall in love with the man we did?

Why the subjects in the Milgram experiment did not stop, until the last line?

Why did we buy the red shoes and not the blue ones?

Why did the subjects in the Asch’s experiment pick the wrong line?

Why did we murder the Arab, the alien, at the beach?

The answer to every why is invariably is the rationalization the mind does.


We are irrational, sentimental, conscience-free beings.

A chaotic system (brain) within a chaotic hypersystem (human society) within a chaotic megasystem (world).

I know, it is hard to swallow that you are not in control of your own self. This happens to you because you do not accept that You are a part of a much larger and more chaotic reality.

You are not you. You are much more than what you know.


PS: In this article, there are words that rimed into your subconscious.


I read about Bargh’s experiment in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”

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Translated by Alexandros Mantas