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Iceberg Model of Consciousness

Recently I wrote a weekly tip about the rise of the ‘Covidiot‘ and posed the question of why some people can do such bad, negative, anti-social (insert your own adjective here) things. Well, it got me thinking about a model called ‘The Iceberg Model of Consciousness’ that my colleagues at Eagle Training and I use in many of our leadership and management programmes to explain why people do the things they do.

The Iceberg Theory (Ron’s Iceberg)

The Iceberg Model of Consciousness

We call the model ‘Ron’s Iceberg’ because it uses the analogy of an iceberg to explain the roots of a person’s behaviour and the guy who told us about it many years ago was a guy called Ron!

We have used Ron’s Iceberg in our training for over 20 years now and delegates have loved it because, we believe, it really helps to understand people better. We also love how it explains in fairly simple terms the complexity of human behaviour.

To begin with, let me ask you something. Have you ever seen anyone do something that in your opinion was crazy or stupid and thought to yourself “Why on earth did that do that?” Of course, you have; we all have!

But, consider this. Have YOU ever done something and thought how stupid or crazy you were for doing it?? Well, whatever they or you did, the behaviour that was exhibited had roots.

Iceberg Model of Consciousness

The Iceberg Theory

Apparently, the idea of the iceberg model comes from Sigmund Freud‘s Iceberg Model of Consciousness. Freud contested that our conscious behaviour is only the visible 10% of our psyche – the tip of the iceberg if you like.


The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.


The deeper drivers of our behaviours – the other 90% – lie submerged in our subconscious or unconscious mind. Impressed eh? Allow me to explain.

The 10% of the iceberg that is above the waterline is your behaviour; what you do and say – and how you do and say it. If you like, this is the ‘external’ you that is visible to everybody else. The drivers or roots of your behaviour lurk unseen below the waterline.

Just below the waterline lie your immediate, minute-by-minute feelings. These obviously affect what you do and can change very quickly depending on the circumstances you find yourself in. If you are feeling ‘down’, do you think it might just show in your behaviour? Oh yes!

So, what drives your feelings? Well, using ‘The Iceberg Model of Consciousness’ we would argue that it’s probably your thoughts or thinking patterns. So, at one extreme you may have a predominantly optimistic way of thinking. Would this shape the way that you felt? We believe it would.

At the other extreme, of course, you might have a more glass half empty, pessimistic pattern of thinking. Might this have an effect on the way you are feeling? Of course.
By the way, folks, while you are arguing whether the glass is full or empty, someone just might sneak in and drink it!

So, what lies below your thinking in your iceberg? Well, for me this is where it gets really interesting. At a deeper, more unconscious level lie your beliefs and values. We have borrowed Tony Robbins‘ definition of a belief as being ‘a meaning of certainty’ about something; religion, society, politics, money, relationships and much more besides.

Many of the beliefs people hold to be true were put there by well-meaning folks called parents. As a young boy, I remember my Mum telling me that I would not like certain foods – and sure enough I didn’t. She also told me not to expect too much out of life; so I didn’t and sure enough, I didn’t. She meant well I’m sure. The problem was that I took what she said to be true and they had a limiting effect on me.

Speaking personally for a moment, many of my beliefs have changed over time so maybe they are not, in and of themselves, true. In fact, if I had held on to some of my beliefs they would have actually made me less resourceful. For example, there was a time when I believe when I was eight years old. What if I had not shaken that one off?? (Don’t go there!!!).

Here’s the thing though. While a belief might not be true, you will probably act as if they are. You might rarely question your beliefs because they are deep in your iceberg.

Finally, and strongly linked to beliefs, are your values. They are what’s important to you. Again, they can (and do) change over time as we live our lives. My own values changed on the day I became a father. Suddenly what was important to me in my life changed.

According to David Shephard of the Performance Partnership, our values do two important things. Firstly, they provide us with upfront motivation. Secondly, they provide after the event validation that what we did was ‘right’ or not.

“OK Ian”, you cry, “but surely human behaviour is more complex than The Iceberg Model of Consciousness?” Well, yes of course it is. The Iceberg Model of Consciousness aims to simplify behaviour in order to aid understanding.

For us here at Eagle Training the key learning in all of this is also simple. The next time you see someone do something that – is your personal opinion at least – is stupid or crazy or whatever adjective you wish to use, remember the iceberg and perhaps become more curious about them than judgmental. Begin to ask yourself why they might do what they did rather than labelling them according to your map of the world.

Years ago one of my NLP trainers, Ian McDermott, began an evening seminar with the words:

Behaviour is the end of the line

I believe Ian was right and that that line starts way on down in your ‘iceberg’ and the iceberg model of consciousness.

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