Conscious and Subconscious Mechanisms


We are looking at a discussion paper from the McKinsey Institute and incidentally wondering if it would tie back to the teaching of a sage called Osho. His contention is that action and activity are two distinct states. Action is natural, needful and appropriate, like eating when you are hungry. Activity is symptomatic, like eating when you are not hungry, but merely propelled into the behavior by compulsion.

Conscious mechanisms

The eight McKinsey Institute authors who collaborated on “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis” teach that “conscious” mechanisms are those which individuals actively participate in or engage with. The examples they give of largely conscious mechanisms include portion control; healthy meals; high-calorie food and beverage availability; and parental education — all of which are under the control of the consumer or patient.

Other conscious mechanisms are things that are done to the subject. The industry tries to encourage overeating with price promotions and reformulation. The government tries to affect what people eat — through subsidies, taxes, pricing rules, and more rules about how, when, and where commercials may be broadcast.

Parental education also belongs on this list, because it is provided to the consumer or patient from two sources — both from the industry, in the form of advertising, and from clinicians and other health professionals, in the form of classes, videos, pamphlets, personal counseling, and so on.

All these things, looked at through the lens held up by Osho, would fall under the heading of “activity” — and activity all too often just churns the waters and leaves them even more muddy than before. As real life demonstrates, even the most well-intentioned conscious mechanisms and interventions often have poor success rates.

Subconscious mechanisms

The McKinsey Institute publication also discusses subconscious mechanisms, those which change the environment that surrounds the patient (or consumer), perhaps in ways that are barely noticeable or even undetectable. One mechanism would be to change the available options, and the example given is providing different food choices in a school cafeteria.

Another subconscious mechanism is causing a shift in the social norms that shape behavior. In the real world, this works much better for the “bad guys” than for the “good guys.” Consider how easy it is for advertisers to portray the consumption of sugar-laden beverages as behavior that should be emulated, if the subject wants to have a good life, fit in, be cool, and so forth. Trying to move the social norm in the other direction, to where guzzling soda is not cool, is a much more difficult and demanding task.


The eight authors of the discussion paper offer these as some examples of subconscious mechanisms: school curriculum; weight-management programs; labeling; workplace wellness; active transport; and public-health campaigns. The rationale gets confusing, because those all seem like quite conscious things. But the thinking is, even though they are deliberately done by humans, they can cause subconscious behavioral change in other humans.

Perhaps these quotations will help:

Most of the interventions in the food and beverage environment are driven by subconscious mechanisms such as limiting access to high-calorie foods, reducing portion sizes, reformulating foods to decrease sugar and fat content, and reducing promotional activity in expandable categories.

Other interventions that rely on subconscious mechanisms include structural changes that determine physical activity levels, such as urban redesign that forces people out of their cars and mandating physical activity in school curricula.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis,”, November 2014
Source: “Action vs. Activity,”, undated
Photo credit: rolffimages/123RF Stock Photo

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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