The Subconscious Mind Cannot understand Negatives

Mark Gordon Brown By Mark Gordon Brown, 8th Aug 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Science>Psychology

Have you ever told yourself over and over not to do something, only to end up doing it? Have you ever told somebody to stop smoking, only to have them smoke more? The reason for this is because the subconscious mind is fooled by the negative words, and ignores them.

Don't smoke

Quitting smoking is surely a difficult thing, and yet the suggestions of well meaning people who say “Don't Smoke.” actually contributes to keeping that person puffing away on the cigarettes. Sometimes the person will say that these comments actually make them want to smoke more. Why is this? Why do we always do the thing we are told not to do?

Don't Fall in Love with Me

How many times have you heard the story of somebody being told not to fall in love with somebody else? Have you ever heard somebody say to another person “Don't fall in love with me.” and you just know what will happen.. and not just in movies, but real life too.

It happens all the time. It seems the more you tell somebody not to do something, the more likely it is that it will happen. Sometimes we think it is just disobedience, a child testing their parent, when the parent says “Don't you do that.”. There is an actual scientific reason for this, as we shall soon see.

Here is the Problem

Our Subconscious brain cannot process negatives. We only hear things like “Fall in love with me.” or “Smoke.” the word “don't” leaves our subconscious and deep down we only think about the other part. This is one of the reasons children often do the opposite of what we told them not to do. True, sometimes they are testing us, but often it is just that the subconscious and the conscious have not connected the dots. We have to train them correctly to fill in that blank.

Have you ever put your foot in your mouth and said something you KNEW would be stupid to say. Something you told your self over, and over again, not to say it, only for those words to flow from your mouth later? This is again this is an other example of your subconscious not understanding the negative.

When you know you are entering an awkward situation so you tell yourself over and over not to do a certain thing, and sure enough, you end up doing that thing. It is because deep down in your mind you were actually telling yourself to do it, and because of the awkwardness, you ended up doing it.

Your conscious can understand negatives, if somebody says “No” you know what they mean, however our subconscious mind is one based more on instinct and survival. Negatives do not exist on that level.

Why Most Self-Help Programs are Not Effective

There are loads of self help books, self help Videos, DVDs, CDs and so forth, and often times people buy them with good intention, but many times they do not see results.

Most self help subliminal programs are designed to get you to stop an unwanted behavior, but unfortunately the programmers either don't know, or don't care, that the subconscious brain cannot process the negative words in these programs, as such if they tell you not to chew your nails, for example, all your subconscious mind is aware of, is the thought of chewing your nails.

Most self help guides and subliminal programs designed to get you to stop a behavior have this problem. They tell you not to do something, and up front that is what you hear... but deep down the only message you get is “Smoke”, “Eat”, “Drink”, or whatever. Any efforts to stop your negative behavior are defeated by the messages as absorbed into your deeper unconscious thoughts.

Avoiding this Problem

If you want to get around this problem you must think of new ways to phrase things. Remove any negatives, change things into positive affirmations. Rather than saying “Don't Smoke” you can say “Be smoke free”. Instead of saying to your child “Don't throw that rock” you should say “Put the rock down”.

Instead of telling yourself what not to do in social situations, try focusing on what do to. It is very hard for most people to say things without saying a negative, for some reason we are taught to speak negatively unaware of how our subconscious perceives this information, but with some effort you can turn things around so you can accomplish your goals.

Other Links by this Author

Best Places for a First Date

Worst Places for a First Date

Can You Retire on a Million Dollars

Join Wikinut and Become a Paid Writer


Brain, Conscious, Dont, Mind, Negative, Negatives, Nlp, Psychology, Smoke, Subconscious, Subconscious Programming, Thoughts

Meet the author

author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
Raised in Michigan, I have a son who recently joined the Military. I am living in Canada with my wife where we have a hobby farm.

Share this page

moderator johnnydod moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Retired
27th Aug 2010 (#)

Interesting info.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Helen
10th Apr 2011 (#)

I love this article. Very very interesting. What about "Don't drink and drive" on the roadside. Very scary indeed!

Reply to this comment

author avatar Rathnashikamani
13th Aug 2011 (#)

The subconscious mind is a mysterious enigma!

Reply to this comment

author avatar John R. Meese
25th Oct 2013 (#)

This is an interesting article, and I like the information, but do you have a source for this? Is there a study on the subconscious mind that confirms we can't process negative statements?

Reply to this comment

author avatar Magnolia
11th May 2014 (#)


Reply to this comment

author avatar Greg
2nd Sep 2014 (#)

It is pretty common conventional thought in NLP and hypnosis circles that the sub-conscious mind has extreme difficulty with processing a negation to a statement. The reason for this is that in order for the mind to understand what it is NOT supposed to do, it must first comprehend what it means to DO the action, and then actively negate the idea of DO-ing that action. The effort involved in cognitively negating an action is usually attributed to the conscious, cognitive, or thinking mind, and is not usually atributed to the more primal, emotive, immagintive unconscious mind.

Now, that being said, those same experts on hypnosis and NLP will (almost in the same breath) move on to illustrate a script that actively uses a negation (especially in an area where it is difficult to define a desired action inthe positive, such as "Stop Smoking", "Non-Smoker", "Quit Smoking", "No Longer Crave Cigarettes", etc.)

There are infact several resources out there where experts actually challenge the notion of whther or not the subconscious mind can process a negation, and cite these as examples. But they do generally agree that being able to phrase statements in the positve tend to be much more effective than phrasing them in the negative and then negating them back to the positive. Partly because it creates a void that the subconscious mind crave to fill it, and partly becasue you can't easily make the mind ignore an action by calling attention to that self same action.

However, inflection on wording can help to stress and emphasize the overall instruction that you want to prevail, consider the difference between:

"DON'T drink and drive."
"don't... DRINK and DRIVE"

Reply to this comment

author avatar Jonathan Finch
8th Apr 2015 (#)

Greg, that was the most thorough support for this assertion I've seen.

I've seen this asserted many times...but if it is true that the subconscious responds poorly to negatives, then it would be simple to conduct an experiment confirming it or disproving it.

Also, I don't think I've EVER heard or read this assertion made by someone who understood what they were saying. Usually, they say something like the subconscious can't hear the word "not," or ignores it. The reason this would be true is that the subconscious works on the level of ideas, imagination, and concrete images--not abstractions. The word "not" and similar phrases like "no longer" or "don't" are too abstract for the infant/animal subconscious.

Hypnotists also are fond of saying that hypnosis can't influence you to do something against your will or which you think is wrong. That is absolutely false, and I believe hypnotists say that only to relax their audience.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Patricia
13th May 2016 (#)

Mark, I question whether your rephrasing of "Don't Smoke" to "Be Smoke Free" isn't more of the same negative connotation. In other words, the subconscious mind, which thinks in images, would be triggered by the mention of "Smoke" at all. To elicit a positive action or behavior, we must focus on what we WANT, vs. what we don't want. Which means rephrasing to eliminate the very mention of what we don't want, e.g. Clean Clear Air only, Keep your Lungs Healthy!

Reply to this comment

author avatar James
10th Mar 2019 (#)

And what with "can't","won't" etc

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?