Definitions of unconscious processing in cognitive and social psychology

John Bargh, Professor of Psychology at Yale, and his ACME (Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Emotion) Lab are doing very exciting work. I had read some articles by Bargh some time ago (e.g. Bargh & McKenna 2004) and encountered his work in the context of debates about how objects can automatically activate attitudes that apply to them. But it hasn’t been until recently (following a discussion with James Breckenridge) that I’ve begun to really engage with the larger body of research Bargh and his collaborators have produced — and the interesting reflections and arguments found in the reviews of this and related work that he and his collaborators have written.

I expect I’ll be writing more about this work, but in this and some follow-up posts I want to just say a little bit about the general character of the research and, more specifically, how this work engages with and employs definitions of ‘unconscious’ and ‘unconscious processing‘.

Bargh & Morsella (2008, in press, page numbers are to this version) highlights how cognitive psychology and social psychology have operated with different definitions and different emphasis in investigating what they call “unconscious”. For cognitive psychology, “subliminal information processing – […] extracting meaning from stimuli of which one is not consciously aware” – has been paradigmatic of the unconscious (p. 1). That is, its study of unconscious processing is the study of the processing of stimuli of which one is unaware. On the other hand, for mainstream social psychology research, including work with priming, “the traditional focus has been on mental processes of which the individual is unaware, not on stimuli of which one is unaware” (Ibid.).

This is a striking difference that, as Bargh & Morsella illustrate, has consequences for how “dumb” or “smart” and “limited” or “pervasive” unconscious processing is. If unconscious processing is limited to processing of subliminal stimuli, then it doesn’t have much to go on. But the social psychology definition — the liberal, process-awareness definition — allows us to call a lot more things unconscious processing.

I recognize shortcomings with the cognitive psychology definition — the narrow, stimulus-awareness definition. And Bargh and Morsella’s statement of the process-awareness definition does enable them to say some striking things (e.g. about automatic activation of motivations).

But I also wonder whether this redefined term can bear much theoretical weight. Specifically, I have two concerns:

  1. this definition makes what is unconscious depend on each person’s knowledge of the causes of their actions — and this can get tricky in unintuitive and highly individual ways
  2. this definition seems to count on having good identity conditions for the kinds of objects to which ‘unconscious’ is supposed to apply (e.g. events, processes), but identity conditions (which are often hard to come by in general) are tricky for this domain in particular.

These are familiar problems in philosophy of mind, and they deserve consideration when designing theoretically useful definitions of unconscious processing. I aim to take up each of these issues in more detail in another post.

Bargh, J.A., & Morsella, E. (2008, in press). The unconscious mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Bargh, J.A., & McKenna, K.Y.A. (2004). The Internet and social life. Annual review of psychology, 55, 573-590.

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  1. […] post revisits some thoughts I’ve shared an earlier version of here. In articles over the past few years, John Bargh and his colleagues claim that cognitive psychology […]

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