This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.

Unconscious Thought Processes

Unconscious thought processes have been discussed since the time of Aristotle. The topic periodically becomes popular with scholars and the general public. In a book titled The Unconscious Before Freud (1966) L. L. Whyte pointed out that speculation about the unconscious mind was very fashionable in Europe during the 1830s, and in 1840 there was a best seller titled The Psychology of the Unconscious. Another surge of speculation about the nature and function of unconscious processes occurred around 1900-1920, largely outside academic psychology but stimulated by psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Yet another surge of interest occurred from the 1980s and 1990s to the present. This time, psychologists have far better tools than they did in the past for studying information processing in the brain during conscious and unconscious states.

What did Whyte point out in his book? What is a change in the way present day scientists talk about "the unconscious"?

One noticeable change is that present-day scientists seldom refer to "the" unconscious mind. Most scientists believe there are many unconscious processes. It is more accurate to use the plural form unconscious processes rather than the unconscious.

Uleman and Bargh (1989) found that researchers used at least five different definitions of unconscious mental processes:

1. Mental activity is unconscious if people are unaware of it. For example, you might tap your toe to music without realizing it.

2. Something is unconscious if it happens without effort. For example, in speaking, you retrieve most words in your everyday vocabulary quickly and smoothly, without conscious effort.

3. An unconscious action is one that is unintended. For example, you might accidentally call one person by another person's name.

4. An unconscious mental process is autonomous (runs by itself, without conscious attention). For example, you set your alarm to 7 a.m. and find yourself waking up at 6:59 a.m.

5. A behavior is unconscious if it resists conscious control, for example, a person might not be able to stop saying "um" or "you know" despite trying.

What is the most general of the five definitions?

These are overlapping categories. Of the five categories, the fourth-being autonomous-seems to be the broadest. An autonomous process is an automatic or "self-acting" process. All five definitions involve autonomous processes.

What terms are sometimes used in place of "conscious" and "unconscious"?

Influenced by the legacy of behaviorism, many psychologists are still reluctant to use the word conscious in a research report. The word automatic (the opposite of conscious) does not seem to carry the same stigma. So experimenters sometimes use the term automatic in place of unconscious, while non-automatic serves as a substitute for conscious.

Similarly, the term attention also seems to be used as a euphemism for consciousness in psychology journals. The word intention, referring to conscious efforts to alter mental events, has also been creeping back into scholarly discourse. See, for example, the Suzuki and Peterson (2000) study reported in Chapter 7. They studied the ability of people to intentionally prevent changes of perspective in a famous illusion, the Necker Cube. In this case intention seems to be equivalent to the willful application of executive control, what some people call willpower.

How does a psychologist determine whether a stimulus is in a person's attention, or whether a person has an intention to do something? Typically the only way is to ask the subject. So this is a return to introspectionism, which makes some psychologists uneasy. Others retort that psychologists use self-report measures all the time, so there is nothing unusual about it, as long as the data-collection procedures are specified.

Other critics point out that consciousness is a broader concept than attention. Some forms of consciousness, such as certain meditative states, are not focused on particular content as implied by the word attention. Therefore the words are not exact synonyms.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey