Has social psychology “proved” the unconscious-thought theory? And more importantly, does it need to? Thoughts on the recent “crisis” in social psychology

Making its way around the internet is a news piece in Nature covering the latest “blowback” to social psychology due to replication failure. The researchers attempted to replicate a series of experiments purporting to show “intelligence priming” i.e. merely thinking about a professor as opposed to a thug will make you perform better on some task. Studies like these are of course a dime a dozen in social psychology circles  e.g. reading words associated with oldness like “Florida” make you walk slower, or finding a dime in phone booth increases your odds of donating to a charity. Such findings inspired hordes of experimentalists to try and produce similar results, and by and large they have succeeded in doing so across a variety of domains. Of course, these kinds of effects are typically small, sometimes measured in minute difference in reaction times.

Taken as a whole, the literature seems convincing. But take each study individually and skepticism  rears its head about task validity, sample sizes, weak effects, and of course replication. This skepticism has been building to point that journalists and science writers now entertain  words like “crisis” to describe the scientific respectability of social psychology, especially after the recent series of high-profile fraud by leaders of the field. Reflecting broader intellectual moods, the author of the Nature piece then says this:

The theory holds that behaviour can be influenced, or ‘primed’, by thoughts or motives triggered unconsciously — in the case of intelligence priming, by the stereotype of a clever professor or a stupid hooligan. Most psychologists accept that such priming can occur consciously, but many, including Shanks, are unconvinced by claims of unconscious effects.

Notice how the last line is “unconscious effects” in general not “these particular unconscious effects of intelligence priming”. Whether or not this is Shanks view or simple journalistic distortion, the author implies that there is a heated empirical controversy about the actual existence of “genuine” unconscious activity, and that it’s still an open question whether there the unconscious “has effects” at all. Although I do not specifically endorse the recent (2006) version of “unconscious-thought theory” proposed by Dijksterhuis (imo, a classic case of reinventing the wheel), in this post I want to convince you that there is no empirical controversy at all about the existence of unconscious effects in general, and that the great causal efficacy and intelligence of the unconscious mind should understood as a theoretical axiom to be taken for granted, not a hypothesis in need of empirical “proof”.

Obviously any scientific theory must be stated in terms that are meaningful, otherwise we cannot make sense of what the theory claims to be true about the world. Accordingly, a theory that calls itself the “unconscious thought theory” should provide an operational definition of “conscious” because the claim is meant to be contrastive: whatever consciousness is, thoughts can happen without it. Thus, to understand the unconscious thought theory we must have a sense of what it means to be conscious. (We need to also have an operational definition of “thought”, but I will set this aside).

As theoreticians, we have unlimited freedom in defining the specialized theoretical terms we use in our theories so long as we can convince our colleagues that these are coherent and useful. Suppose you defined consciousness to be synonymous with what is understood to be uniquely human, reflective, introspective consciousness, what theorists sometimes call “System II processing” or what laypersons might think of as “self-consciousness”. If this is how the term consciousness is defined, then it follows axiomatically that all (or most) nonhuman animals are “unconscious”, or as I like to say, “nonconscious”. And clearly nonconscious animal minds are capable of producing a continual stream of intelligent and brilliantly adaptive behaviors. Thus, it is clearly unnecessary to go into a social psych lab to “prove” that the unconscious “has effects”. We plainly see the varied effects of the unconscious in nonhuman animal behavior all around us.

When psychologists throw around terms like “unconscious” they often fail to unambiguously specify the precise operational meaning of the contrasting term “conscious”. As a result, the folk psychological associations of the term as synonymous with “incoming sensory awareness” makes it sounds so cruel and mean to deny nonhuman animals consciousness. Upon reading the above paragraph, many people would immediately say how ghastly it is to deny animals experience, sentience, or a mental life. But it would be an anthropocentric delusion to suppose that human reflection alone bestows mentality upon an otherwise mindless nonconscious system. It is quite the reverse, in fact. It is the buzzing humming activity of the nonconscious system that bestows meaning and mindfulness upon the conscious system. Clearly, if you are an animal and lack reflective consciousness you are not thereby deprived of experience. I am doubtful that the terms “experience” or “awareness” can be given operational precision, but pretheoretically it is quite plain what it means to say that an animal is aware but unreflective; they can process information on-the-fly to produce intelligent, adaptive behavior but cannot “step back” and engage in sophisticated reflection.

In conclusion, I hope to have shown that the unconscious-thought theory is not a hypothesis that can be empirically proved or disproved. When a lab fails to produce priming effects, this has zero bearing on the claim that most of our mental activity is unconscious. That idea falls out of the definition of consciousness as the rarified act of reflective consciousness. It is a theoretical axiom, a guideline for hypothesis generation and research.

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1 Comment

Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy of science, Psychology

One response to “Has social psychology “proved” the unconscious-thought theory? And more importantly, does it need to? Thoughts on the recent “crisis” in social psychology

  1. I agree with your conclusion. I would say that though I’ve not read about the attempts to produce priming I’d wager that they did it wrong. The mechanisms for consciousness are materialistic, but consciousness itself is not monolithic nor identically comprised in all individuals. Priming is therefore not as simple as a switch mechanism and when it seems to work it is because the individual subjects were predisposed to the priming because of the composition of their consciousness.

    Consciousness, as a materialistic process, is the analysis and reaction to data about the world around us. All animals have some level of awareness. We hairless apes have the big brain to allow us many layers of meta analysis, some layers of which we are able to insert optional data to fill in the gaps. Somewhere in the continuum of analysis capabilities, between round worm and humans is where we see most animals. Some dogs seem smarter than others, why? Some humans are more aware than others, why?

    Any hypothesis of the definition of consciousness should properly explain these differences… in my opinion. Priming would only have a useful effect if the individual already had the meta analysis tools to make advantage of it. This would require more advanced and in depth testing to show that it does or does not have an effect. Even with great effort, the measurable value of such priming would be difficult to acquire given that (per example above) we cannot know just what links an individual has between coins and charity, charitable acts, finding things in general etc. People who regularly give their coins to charities or who only give to charities by donating coins from their pockets might get primed by finding a dime. People who save pennies/coins for vacation money probably would not.

    The tests, as I understand them, are designed wrong, are designed to fail.

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