Wither consciousness?

Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462-479.

What was noted by E. J. hanger (1978) remains true today: that much of contemporary psychological research is based on the assumption that people are consciously and systematically processing incoming information in order to construe and interpret their world and to plan and engage in courses of action. As did E. J. hanger, the authors question this assumption. First, they review evidence that the ability to exercise such conscious, intentional control is actually quite limited, so that most of moment-to-moment psychological life must occur through nonconscious means if it is to occur at all. The authors then describe the different possible mechanisms that produce automatic, environmental control over these various phenomena and review evidence establishing both the existence of these mechanisms as well as their consequences for judgments, emotions, and behavior. Three major forms of automatic self-regulation are identified: an automatic effect of perception on action, automatic goal pursuit, and a continual automatic evaluation of one’s experience. From the accumulating evidence, the authors conclude that these various nonconscious mental systems perform the lion’s share of the self-regulatory burden, beneficently keeping the individual grounded in his or her current environment.

Bargh and Chartrand begin with a quick trip through the contemporary history of psychology, particularly as a dialectic between automaticity (behavior is driven from the inside by unconscious urges or elicited from the outside by learned stimulus-response associations) and free-willing, volitional control. They conclude that, today, “the mainstream of psychology accepts both the fact of conscious or willed causation or mental and behavioral processes and the fact of automatic or environmentally triggered processes.”

To call a processes conscious…

  1. we must be aware of it
  2. it must be intentional
  3. it must be effortful
  4. it must be controllable (not ballistic/stoppable)

Automatic, non-conscious processes may lack all of these characters (as much of perception seems to), or they might be intentionally launched (and maybe intentionally learned), while lacking awareness, effort, and control (as many well-learned skills seem to).

The authors argue that “ideomotor” effects demonstrate that ideation alone can result in behavior, without conscious will to act. Perception could well be the source for such ideas — particularly for primates, with demonstrated capacity for imitation. That is, social perception can lead to social ideation, which can be the engine for action.

If perception and ideation are linked, and ideation and action are linked, then we might predict observable links between perceptions and behaviors. In experimental settings, reading hostile words is associated with subsequent hostile behavior, as perceiving aging related words is associated with slower walking. So, perhapes stereotypes activate stereotypies?

Indeed this perception-ideation-action loop might serve as the engine for social stereotypes. Stereotyped ideation may lead to increased hostility toward stereotyped targets. This leads to retaliatory hostility from the target, which serves to reinforce the stereotype. A vicious cycle.

But, there are prosocial outocmes, too, of course. We tend to mirror the behaviors of conversation partners, even absent explicit social goals. Such behavioral synchrony appears to be associated with increased feelings of affinity–so such automatic social action may be important to species’ who rely on social living.

Knee-jerk associations between incoming stimuli and outgoing behavior may be one thing, but what of goals and motivation? A psychology that wants to deny consciousness a role in the greatest proportion of the behavior of organisms must explain goals and motivations as eliticted by the environment in the same way that other mental activity (e.g. perception) is elicited by the environment.

The authors posit that the same mechanisms behind the automaticity of skill (frequent repetition of the same set of choices in a given circumstance) also result in the automaticity of goals and motivations. If we are consistent in the goals we pursue, the cognition necessary to maintain those goals and to coordinate the action necessary for goal achievement drops out. Priming research demonstrates that these goals can become activated (or at least that we observe behaviors regularly associated with those goals) with subtle manipulations, and without any concomitant awareness of those goal-states.

For goals that are specifically related to outcomes, unconsciously induced goal states appear similar to classic conscious goal states: participants work harder at tasks when they have been primed to achieve. Additionally, their mood detectably worsens, and their sense of self-efficacy decreases, if they underperform — again, with no real conscious awareness of their motivation.

Some of my questions

  1. Bargh and Chantrand appear to be putting a lot of their eggs in a single basket: namely the work on ego depletion by Baumeister (and others). While most of the paper is devoted to showing that we CAN induce behaviors, goals, and other products of mental activity through subtle manipulations, outside of conscious awareness, they seem to be mobilizing the evidence from Baumeister as (perhaps their sole) reason that these automatic inducements MUST be how we get most everything done. After all, if will is a ridiculously easily depleted resource, there can’t possibly be much to spread around to the myriad things we have to do every day. But what if the Baumeister interpretation of the serial task paradigm is in error? What if, instead of a depletable resource, all it shows us is shifting motivations and/or shifting stimulus salience?
  2. Page 467: “participants who were subliminally presented with faces of young male African Americans subsequently reacted with greater hostility (a component of the African American stereotype) …. [T]he automatic activation of the African American stereotype caused the participants to behave themselves with greater hostility.” What would have happened if Bargh had happened upon exactly the opposite finding? My guess would be that he would have spun a similarly nice story: “Participants who were subliminally presented with faces of young male African Americans subsequently reacted with much less hostility. This is perfectly in line with notions of stereotype lift. Activation of sterotypes about an outgroup led to self-enhancement as a means of separating oneself from disparaged others.” (Sometimes I hate psychology.)
  3. Page 476: “And so, the evaluations we’ve made in the past are
    now made for us and predispose us to behave in consistent ways; the goals we have pursued in the past now become active and guide our behavior in pursuit of the goal in relevant situations … They are, if anything, “mental butlers” who know our tendencies and preferences so well that they anticipate and take care of them for us, without having to be asked.” So, our homunculus is some sort of Jeeves-culus. This is, perhaps, all well and good for adaptive, well-behaved Jeeveses. But, didn’t a big part of this same paper focus on stereotypes? What about when Jeeves-culus is really a David Duke-culus?

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