“Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow

AUTHOR: Leonard Mlodinow

AUTHOR: Leonard Mlodinow

Working in international relations, we must remain open minded to all languages, cultures, customs and systems, particularly when it comes to negotiating and making decisions. Sometimes, this can be difficult as we all have certain viewpoints and upbringings that hinders us from understanding or grasping a situation in its fullest capacity. We work with imperfect information and as result, our subconscious mind helps to fill in the gaps that can be incorrect and detrimental to fixing roadblocks, especially when the situation has been prolonged for years. We are biased in our judgments and decision making when we defend previously held beliefs. 

To help us understand the pitfalls of our unconscious mind, we recommend the book “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behaviour” by Leonard Mlodinow to support Chapter 4 “Know Thyself” of the Diplomatic Planner. With a library full of examples and anecdotes, the author shows us how the unconscious mind is in charge when we go on to autopilot. When we do not put much thought into our thinking, we tap into past experiences to help us from falling over. When it comes to developing ourselves as diplomats of the international community, this book is very useful in helping us to improve our social and negotiating skills. 

Throughout the book, Mlodinow – who is a physicist, emphasises how we are driven by our unconscious mind which leads us to do irrational things. In the past, many great thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Immanuel Kant speculated about the nature of our unconscious mind. Kant, who is often studied by international relations practitioners, proposed that our mind doesn’t experience objective reality, but instead creates its own version. More than 200 years later, Freud suggested that the unconscious mind is often unnatural and unhealthy due to our repression of painful memories. The author, on the contrary, suggests that both these theories do not hold up in science. Mlodinow provides rich, scientific explanations on how technology such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging has allowed neuroscientists to scan the brain’s blood flow and watch the mental process works.  

In short, the unconscious mind collects raw data from our senses and summarises it for our conscious mind so that we are able to react to things like a loud bang. These neuro reactions helps to sense danger and keep us away from threats much like the explanation of the fight or flight mode. However, the detail that our unconscious mind received from our senses is imperfect much like information we receive on the ground in diplomacy. We turn raw information into intel and use these filtered information to come up with decisions for further action. Our body language also allows us to unconsciously interpret information such as the behaviour and opinion of others. Our bodies are just as expressive as our words, but this information is also imperfect.  

However, it is good to remember that our facial expressions are universal and innate rather than learned, and something that is hard to fake. We can express pleasure and disgust in the blink of an eye and these are universally standard reactions across all cultures. As a result, we don’t put much effort into our own gestures. Our unconscious mind does this for us. Body language is slightly different though as many of these gestures are cultural forms of communication. Certain gestures signal certain social signs and therefore we make a conscious effort to form them.  

The authors goes into depth using scientific examples on how the pitch and tone of our voices makes us more or less truthful and persuasive, which deserves a full read. For instance, he used the example of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and how, as a young politician, she trained herself to lower the pitch of her naturally high voice so that she can appear to be more powerful. In his analysis, the author has shown that a lower-pitched voice showed more authority. A higher-pitch unconsciously revealed someone as being less truthful, less persuasive, and a little more pathetic.  

People rely on implicit stereotypes and labels which affect how we see others in society. One of these prejudices is how we form opinion of someone’s character based on their appearance which is usually highly biased. The Implicit Association Test asks people to respond to a series of words shown on a screen in quick succession. Unfortunately, 70% of people associated black people with words like failure compared to white people who were seen as success. And these were people who considered themselves as non-racist. Such hidden prejudices exist in all of us and really affects our society. Unfortunately, culture and media help spread these descriptive stereotypes which stays within our unconscious mind.  

The author suggests that the first steps towards avoiding these unconscious prejudices and stereotypes is to identify them. We can try to avoid judgement by spending more time with people we tend to label to override our habit to casually labelling such people. While it isn’t always possible to control our unconscious mind, we can at least try to manage it. 

“Subliminal” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register