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Everyone at one point has heard the proverb "think before you speak." It's pretty easy to get: think about your words before you say something dumb or offensive. It can be applied to actions, choices, etc.. and it's a great message, but is it actually possible?

For the past two weeks I have been annoying every poor person I've come across asking them that very thing: are you consciously aware of the words or ideas you are about to say before you speak them?

The answer at first seemed to be “it depends." If someone is nervous, like at an interview, or they’re waiting their turn to speak, like in a class or group setting, then yes, they think about what they are going to say. But what about just normal everyday speaking? That’s when answers diverged.

Of everyone I asked, only three people claimed to be consciously aware of the words (or general idea) they are going to say before it leaves their mouths. Over the course of two weeks, I've talked to a lot more than just three people, so the overwhelming majority doesn’t think before they speak. But if three people say they do, then what does that mean?

Are they just the only three people capable of it? Or are they more advanced than me? Are they just lying or do they simply think they think before they speak. Is the majority just less tuned in to their conscious thoughts than those three outliers? These are questions my friends were not quite prepared to answer on the spot, so as always, we turn to the research.

I'm not the first person to ask this question, there's even a wikihow article on how to think before you speak as well as many blogs by actual PhD psychologists. Most of their work plainly asks their readers to "actually think before you speak" or "take two to three seconds and you will be amazed." Their research and advice seem to hinge on the fact that we can think before we speak, and that they believe it is possible. However, these are all "how to's" and not so much "is it possible’s."

While there's a lot of advice, there isn't a lot of research on whether we are consciously aware of ourselves thinking what we are going to say next or on us planning our speech out, in what is called "pre-planned speech."  

One study was conducted by scientist Andreas Lind and his colleagues at Lund University in Sweden on whether or not we are conscious of the words we say before we say them. The study found that we aren't aware of what we are saying until after we have already said them, finding out at the same time as everybody else.

The scientists conducted a variation of the Stroop Test, in which the participant is shown the name of a color but the name of the color is printed out in a different color (like the word red put in blue print) and the participants are asked to say the name of the color of the print.  At the same time they heard back their own answers in their headphones, or they thought they did, but on occasion, they heard back a recording of them saying the name of the wrong color. 85 percent of participants were tricked into believing they said the wrong color because while they didn’t actually say the wrong color they heard themselves say the wrong one.

While this experiment has been debated over whether it actually disproves speech pre-planning, it has been used to illustrate that we don’t potentially know what we are saying until we hear it ourselves. It has been doubted because if this was the case all of the time then deaf people would never be able to speak. Thus auditory feedback can't be the only way we know we are speaking, and Lind agrees with this point. However, it still draws into question the ideas of pre-planned speech and how much we are conscious of our words before we say them out loud.

To really understand how conscious we are of what we think before we speak, we have to look at how conscious we even are at all.

According to a paper by Peter Carruthers, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, there is no such thing as conscious thought. That idea is pretty debated, but what is more agreed on, however, is that while there is conscious thought, almost everything we do falls under the unconscious category, including what we think before we speak.

According to a study led by Ezequiel Morsella, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, which was later published by the journal Behavior and Brain Science, consciousness is "pretty much nothing at all.” The paper instead claims that the unconscious is what is really in charge.

The paper explains their idea of the Passive Frame Theory  – the brain conducts all of the work at an unconscious level without your knowledge but then gets the boss, your conscious mind, to sign the bottom line without doing any work, and then the conscious mind takes all the credit.

The paper even addresses my friends' thought of how they only consciously think about what they are going to say when they are in a nervous situation.  The paper uses examples of delivering a rehearsed speech or speaking in a second nonfluent language. They claim that the conscious mind is the one that has "mastered the script" or is referencing your internal dictionary, but that the reason we study a language is to gain the fluency which allows us to no longer need to consciously think and translate, or think before speaking, but lets the unconscious mind take over and do it for us.

So can we consciously think before we speak if it's our unconscious in charge of the thinking and then the speaking instead of us?

In conclusion, research seems to point in the direction of us not being consciously aware of what we are going to say until we say it or even after we say it. However there are exceptions for instance when you have time to sit and think on the next thing you're going to say like in an interview or a large group conversation, but in a normal conversation it is unlikely that we are pre-planning everything we say.

As for those three people I talked to who think they think everything before they say it, maybe they are pre-planning and acting like they are in an interview or a large group all the time, or maybe they are just one step ahead of me. Regardless, I know I've been trying for weeks and no matter what I do, I have zero idea what the words about to come out of my mouth will be until I say them. I guess I won't be following that old proverb and I'll just keep hoping my unconscious does the rest, but this time with credit.


So what about you, are you consciously aware of the words you're going to say before you say them, and even better, are you trying to test out the theory right now?


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Megan Forsythe is a sophomore at Boston University. She is a dual degree student studying both Journalism and Political Science. While originally from Southern California, Boston is home to her now. Apart from writing, Megan spends her time working in a caffe, obsessing over street art, and exploring the city with friends.
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