Two country preachers, one a Fatalist and the other a Determinist, decided to exchange pulpits one Sunday. While driving their carriages to each other's church, they met on the road. The Fatalist said to the Determinist, "Fate determined that we should preach in each other's church today!" -- whereupon the other turned his carriage around and drove home.
I heard this story in July 2020 from a classical-music program host on Sirius XM
-- perhaps Preston Trombly, possibly John Clare
The theoretical distinction between automatic
and controlled processes, and Jacoby's introduction of the
process-dissociation procedure as a means of measuring their
relative strength, led to the development of a large number of dual-process
models in psychology and cognitive science. These
models all took some aspect of mental life, and proposed that in
most tasks can be accomplished either through two quite
different processing strategies -- namely, via automatic or
controlled processing. Smith and DeCoster (2000)
summarized the three features of such models:
In its early days, cognitive social psychology tacitly focused on deliberate, conscious thought, as represented by such topics as impression formation (person perception), attribution theory, person memory, impression management (strategic self-presentation), and social exchange.
Partly as a
reaction to what seemed (to some) to be a cold, ultra-rational
view of social interaction, some social psychologists have
begun to offer theoretical alternatives.
For example, John Bargh (1984) famously argued that
As Skinner argued so pointedly, the more we know about the situational causes of psychological phenomena, the less need we have for postulating internal conscious mediating processes to explain these phenomena.
In Bargh's view, most social behavior is preattentive and automatic in nature. It occurs in response to an environmental trigger, in a manner analogous to priming, independent of the person's conscious intentions, beliefs, attitudes, and choices, and also independent of the person's deployment of attention. To the extent that responses to social stimuli are mediated by internal mental representations, these internal mental representations of the situation are constructed automatically, and then "dumped" in consciousness.
To illustrate Bargh's position, consider an experiment by Bargh and Pietromonaco (1982), which was presented to subjects as a simple target-detection task. The subjects were simply asked to attend to a computer screen, and press a key whenever a particular target appeared. What they were not told was that a series of words would be presented in the periphery of their vision, or parafoveally. The words were a mix: some of them were related to hostility, while others were neutral. Actually, one group got 0% hostile primes, another 20%, and another 80%. Presentation of each word was followed by a pattern mask that rendered it inaccessible to conscious perception (we'll discuss masking in the lectures on "The Explicit and the Implicit"). The purpose of the parafoveal presentation was to insure that the words were not processed consciously, because they were not the focus of conscious attention. Accordingly, a later recognition test confirmed that the subjects did not remember many of the words.
All of this was a
set-up, of course, for the main experiment, in which subjects
were asked to perform an impression-formation task. They
read a story about a fictional character, Donald, who is
depicted as engaging in a number of ambiguous behaviors, many
of which could be interpreted as hostile. Then they were
asked to rate Donald's personality on a series of trait
adjectives. The trait ratings were then coded for
negativity in general, and for hostility in particular.
The subjects in the 0% condition tended to rate Donald as
generally negative, but not particularly hostile. But in
the 20% condition, and especially in the 80% condition, they
rated Donald as hostile as well as just generally unpleasant.
Bargh's interpretation of this
study is that the subjects perceived the hostile trait
adjectives preconsciously, and that this preconscious
processing automatically activated a negative, hostile schema
which then guided the interpretation of Donald's ambiguous
In a later experiment by Bargh
et al. (1996), subjects performed a "scrambled sentences" task
in which they were given a jumble of words and asked to
arrange them into complete sentences.
At the end of the
experiment, the subjects emerged from the lab room to find the
experimenter engaged in a conversation with another person,
who was actually an experimental confederate. The
conversation continued for up to 10 minutes, all the while the
experimenter assiduously ignored the waiting subject.
The main result was that subjects in the Rude condition were
more likely to interrupt the experimenter than were subjects
in the Polite condition, with subjects in the Neutral
condition falling somewhere in between.
Bargh's interpretation of this experiment is that reading "rude" words automatically primed the subjects to interpret the experimenter's behavior as rude, and thus more likely to behave rudely in turn, interrupting his conversation.
automaticity in social behavior begins with a preconscious
analysis of the situation.
In his analysis of
social behavior, Bargh advocates social ignition over
social cognition. In his view, automaticity
pervades everyday live, and conscious awareness is largely an
after-the-fact rationalization of what we have thought and
done. In his view, the earlier (if tacit) emphasis on
consciousness in social behavior is a holdover from an earlier
embrace of serial processing in models of attention and
cognition. But now, he asserts, cognitive psychology
emphasizes parallel processing -- as in McClelland and
Rumelhart's connectionist "parallel distributed processing"
models of cognition. Bargh is a cognitive social
psychologist, but he no longer equates cognition with
So does any role remain for
consciousness? Clearly Bargh thinks there's not
much. In one paper he evokes the image of "consciousness
riding into the sunset". Of course, when cowboys rode
off into the sunset, it was after they killed the outlaw and
kissed the girl. But that's not Bargh's scenario.
In his view, consciousness is not necessary for evaluation,
judgment, or behavior.
For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.Perhaps James's wish was father to his thought. Anyway, Wendy Wood and her colleagues at USC conducted an experience-sampling study, and estimated that we act out of habit about 43% of the time (JPSP 2002; for more details about habits, how to acquire them, and how to break them, see Wood's 2019 book, Good Habits, Bad Habits).
There is a kind of schadenfreude, I think, when someone like Bargh takes it as his "sad duty" to report that a fondly held view of human nature is, in fact, a myth. And that is precisely what he does. In one of his papers, Bargh takes up Freud's account of his contribution to the "naturalization" of human life. According to Freud,
More recent statements by Bargh continue in this vein.
Bargh is not alone in this project. Bargh is a leader of the automaticity movement within cognitive psychology, but he has a large number of compatriots and followers, who together comprise a "school" of psychology that I have called The Automaticity Juggernaut.
Denise Park, serving as guest
editor of a special issue of American Psychologist --
the official journal of the American Psychological Association,
and read by almost every experimental and clinical psychologist
in the country, if not the world -- wrote an introductory
editorial entitled "Behavior -- It's Involuntary", in which she
announced the discovery of automaticity as a "fundamental
breakthrough" in our understanding of motivation and free will.
Timothy Wilson, at the University of Virginia, has long argued that we have limited introspective awareness of our own attitudes and other causes of behavior, because attitudes are largely unconscious.
Sandra Blakeslee, one of the best science writers in the business, specializing in psychology, wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine claiming that we humans "are closer to zombies than sentient beings most of the time".
Malcolm Gladwell, another
best-selling science writer specializing in the social sciences
wrote a book, Blink (2005), surveying the evidence for
"the new unconscious" and "The Power of Thinking Without
Ap Dijksterhuis, a Dutch psychologist, has promoted an posed that unconscious thought is actually superior than conscious thought when making complex choices.
Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, has provocatively proposed that conscious will is an illusion, and plays no causal role in either thought or behavior.
Just so he won't be misunderstood, Wegner presents a diagram of the relations between conscious and unconscious thought and action.
The idea was to understand how people experience conscious will when their actions arise from deterministic processes of mind. Rightly perceived by many as an attack on free will, the book received wide attention and wider misinterpretation (American Psychologist, November 2011, p. 670).
Given that The Illusion of Conscious Will was perceived by many as an attack on free will, it's not at all clear that there was any misinterpretation. See Wegner's own "Precis of The Illusion of Conscious Will" in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 2004, 27, 649-692.
|Link to an extensive analysis of the automaticity juggernaut: Kihlstrom, J.F. (2008). The automaticity juggernaut. In J. Baer, J.C. Kaufman, & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will (pp. 155-180). New York: Oxford University Press.|
It's an interesting argument, that our behavior is so powerfully determined by automatic processes that we have greatly limited conscious awareness and control over our attitudes, beliefs, and the behavior they (apparently) cause. If it were true, then this post-Freudian "naturalization" of human experience, thought, and action would indeed be a cause for sorrow, because it would deprive us of the core of what, for thousands of years (at least, in Western culture, since the Genesis story of Adam and Eve) we have considered human nature -- our ability to know what we are doing, and freely choose one path over another.
Note, first of all, that the sorts of experiments performed by Bargh and his colleagues are only demonstration experiments. That is, they show that unconscious, automatic processes play some role in behavior. But that should come as no surprise. Psychologists have long understood that some mental processes are automatic and others are controlled; or, alternately, that every mental task involves some mix of automatic and controlled processes.
But the automaticity juggernaut involves a much more dramatic claim: that automaticity so dominates experience, thought, and action that consciousness plays little or no role in the ordinary course of everyday living. To uphold that claim, we need a certain kind of experiment, one that actually compares the strength of automatic and controlled processes against each other.
Which is where Jacoby's process-dissociation procedure (PDP) comes in. Although still somewhat controversial, the PDP remains the most widely used means of estimating the relative contributions of automatic and controlled processes in task performance. Although widely used in cognitive psychology, the PDP has been rarely used in social psychology. But when it has been used, the results have been revealing -- and reassuring.
Among the earliest applications of the PDP concerned the false fame effect. Jacoby and his colleagues (1989) asked subjects to study a list of non-famous names, such as Sebastian Weisdorf, followed by a memory test. One day later, they were given a long list of names, some clearly famous and others not, and asked simply to judge which of them was the name of a famous person. Among the non-famous names on the list were names from the list that had been memorized 24 hours earlier. The chief finding of the experiment was that the previously studied non-famous names were now judged to be famous. Jacoby argued, reasonably, that the initial study session primed the non-famous names, so that when they appeared on the later fame-judgment task they "rang a bell", and that this increased familiarity was interpreted as evidence of fame. And, of course, the priming was interpreted as automatic in nature.
But was it? In a later study, Jennings and Jacoby (1993) applied the PDP to the false fame effect. The experiment was run as before, except that this time there was both an Inclusion and an Exclusion task (we won't get bogged down in the details of how the Method of Opposition was actually implemented). Moreover, the entire study was run under three experimental conditions: first, they compared full attention (no distraction) to divided attention (where the subjects performed a distracting task while they made fame judgments, in order to restrict cognitive resources; second, they repeated the full-attention condition with a group of elderly subjects, to compare with the college students.
The results were
revealing. In the full-attention condition, which was
comparable to the original demonstration of the false fame
effect, controlled processing was more influential than
unconscious, automatic processing. The role of conscious,
controlled processing was diminished in the divided-attention
condition (naturally, because of the more limited cognitive
resources available), and among the elderly (because of
age-related declines in cognitive capacity). But even
under these conditions, automatic processing did not dominate
conscious processing. It would be more accurate to say
simply that the false fame effect was produced by a mix
of conscious and unconscious processing.
Similar findings were obtained in an experiment on spontaneous trait inferences. Uleman and his colleagues have performed a number of experiments where subjects studied the photographs of strangers, each of which was paired with a simple behavioral description, such as Jane gave a dollar to the beggar). Two days later, they were presented with a larger set of set of photos, including some of the photos studied previously, and asked to make judgments about the personalities of the people depicted. The finding was that targets depicted in the old photos tended to receive trait attributions in line with the behavioral descriptions that had accompanied the photos studied on the first day. For example, subjects tended to describe "Jane" as kind. The interpretation was that, in line with what is called the fundamental attribution error, subjects automatically attribute behavior to a person's personality traits and other internal characteristics, rather than to the situation or some other external factor. So, presentation of the behaviors automatically primed traits, which were then attached to the people depicted in the photos. When the same photo appeared the next day, the subject automatically retrieved the corresponding trait information from memory.
But did it? to his credit,
Uleman and his colleagues (2005) applied the PDP to their
experimental paradigm, running subjects under both Inclusion and
Exclusion instructions. In one condition, the subjects
made trait judgments immediately after studying the photographs;
in other conditions, the trait judgments were delayed by 20
minutes, or 2 days (as in the initial experiment). In the
"immediate" condition, in fact, conscious processing proved to
be more influential than automatic processing. The role of
conscious processing was reduced after a 20-minute or 2-day
delay, reflecting the time-related decline of conscious
recollection. But even in these conditions, task
performance was mediated by a pretty even mix of conscious and
Perhaps the most revealing of these PDP studies is a pair of experiments by Payne and his colleagues concerning the weapon bias. In these experiments, subjects are shown a brief video clip, and they have to judge whether the person in the clip is holding a weapon (a knife or a gun, for example) or a tool (like a wrench or a TV remote). Before performing this task, however, the (white) subjects are shown the face of a black or white person. The finding is that the white subjects are more likely to misidentify tools as guns when they have been primed by a black face. Moreover, they were faster to correctly identify the object as a gun after they had been primed with a black face, and faster to correctly identify the object as a tool after they had been primed with a white face. The interpretation is that the presentation of the faces automatically primed racial stereotypes in these white college students, including the stereotypical association of black people with crime and violence; and that this stereotype automatically biased their weapon judgments. But did it? It depends.
In his initial experiment, Payne (2001) applied the MOP in his standard experimental paradigm, in which there was no deadline, and subjects could take their time making their judgments. In this case, controlled, conscious processing proved to be more important than automatic processing.
In a later study,
Payne and his colleagues imposed a deadline on the subjects,
forcing them to make their decision, weapon or tool, within 500
msec of the video. This was done to more closely simulate
the situation of a police officer who must make a split-second
decision about whether an object in a suspect's hand is a
weapon. Under these circumstances, where subjects had to
make very rapid decisions, automatic processes dominated; but
there was still a healthy amount of controlled processing in the
So, the bottom line is that automaticity plays some role in social cognition and behavior, as we would expect -- because automaticity plays some role in everything we do. The relative impact of automaticity is increased under conditions that militate against conscious processing, such as distraction (which consumes attentional resources), long retention intervals (which induce forgetting) or short response windows (which preclude conscious processes from coming into play). And even under ordinary circumstances, there is enough "mindlessness" in the ordinary course of everyday living to convince us that there's something to this automaticity business.
But the assertion that "humans are closer to zombies than sentient beings much of the time" (Blakeslee, 2002) is wide of the mark. There's just no evidence to support any such belief.
One of the most provocative findings motivating the automaticity juggernaut was reported by Benjamin Libet (1983), a physiologist at UC San Francisco, on the readiness potential, a form of event-related potential (ERP) recorded in the EEG. In fact, the Libet experiment inspired Wegner's argument that conscious will is an illusion, and that the "actual causal path" in behavior goes directly from an unconscious cause of action to the action itself, bypassing conscious thought.
Normally, the ERP is measured in response to a stimulus. When averaged over many trials, the EEG produces a series of waves occurring within about 1000 msec of the presentation of the stimulus.
In a variant on the basic RP
experiment, Libet and his colleagues (1983) asked subjects to
watch a special clock, whose hands moved full circle very
quickly, once every 2.56 seconds. Every time they moved
their finger, they were to use the clock to record the precise
moment when they decided to initiate the movement. As you
can imagine, this isn't easy, but subjects can learn to do it
Looking backward at the EEG, Libet observed the RP shift begin before subjects were aware of their conscious intention to move their fingers. So, Libet argued, there were two components to the timing of voluntary, spontaneous acts:
Libet had earlier obtained evidence, again from ERP data, that a stimulus must persist for approximately 500 msec in order to be conscious. Otherwise, it remains conscious.
Putting the two findings together, Libet (1983,
1985, 2002, 2005) proposed a "time on" theory of
And, needless to say, the Libet experiment was highly controversial -- precisely because it seemed to undermine our common experience that we have free will. And pretty soon, criticisms of the Libet experiment began to pile up. The first important point was that people were able to replicate Libet's own findings in their own laboratories (e.g., Banks & Pockett, 2007).
But as they tried to replicate Libet's findings,
they began to understand the difficulties with his experimental
In addition, some commentators cast doubts on the
ecological validity of Libet's procedure -- that is,
whether the results from his laboratory experiment were
generalizable to the real world (this is an improper use of the
term "ecological validity", but that is a matter for another
When Miller et al. did
what Libet did, they got what Libet got: a "PNS" in the EEG --
in other words, the Type II RP. But when the subjects in
the control group made their movements without watching the
clock, there was no such shift: the EEG was essentially flat
until just before they actually made their movement. So,
it appears that the predecisional negative shift was an artifact
of the attention paid to the clock -- the cognitive effort
involved in watching the clock and recording decision
time. It does not, after all, indicate the unconscious
initiation of ostensibly "voluntary" behavior, as Libet thought
So the Libet experiment does not show that conscious will is an illusion. Maybe conscious will is an illusion (though I don't think so), but the Libet experiment is not a demonstration that it is.
In an earlier experiment, Trevena and Miller (2010) had examined the readiness potential under two conditions: deciding to move (Libet's experiment) and deciding not to move. Both are, ostensibly conscious decisions, and according to Libet's theory, the decision not to move entails a conscious veto over the unconscious decision to move. Yet Trevena and Miller observed no differences in the PNS. This also undercuts Libet's claim that voluntary movements are initiated unconsciously, and that the conscious "decision" to move is really only an afterthought.
Unfortunately, Libet died in 2007, so he could
respond to this new criticism, as he faithfully responded to all
the others that accrued from his initial report in 1983 up until
Which is too bad, in a way, because recently
Andrew Papanicolau, has published a comprehensive overview of
conceptual and empirical critiques of the Libet Experiment, and
of other, more recent neuroscientific demonstrations, themselves
mostly take-offs on the Libet Experiment, that free will doesn't
exist (Consciousness & Cognition, 2017).
Papanicolau points out that the relevant research does not
unequivocally undermine the concept of free will. Partly
this is because the research itself has yielded contradictory
findings. But it's also because the extant studies share
"two fundamental shortcomings":
is all the rage in contemporary social psychology, as
increasing numbers of social psychologists adopt some
combination of the following views:
In the final analysis, the widespread embrace of automaticity appears to have more to do with ideology than evidence.
the enthusiasm for automaticity? Why do some psychologists
(and other cognitive scientists) insist that experience,
thought, and action occur largely automatically, independent of
conscious awareness and conscious control.
The first reason, I think, is
that consciousness makes people nervous. It's made
psychologists nervous ever since Watson. It's hard to
understand how conscious mental states could emerge from neural
processes, and it's hard to understand how conscious will could
have causal powers in a universe consisting of particles in
fields of force. That's why psychologists and other
cognitive scientists have expressed what Owen Flanagan called conscious
(One of the 20th century's foremost cognitive psychologists once told me, proudly, that he had written several books on cognition and never once used the term consciousness.)
With the advent of the
distinction between automatic and controlled processes, two
A related reason can be found in the physics envy that infects many psychologists -- the desire to make psychology a "hard science", like physics, instead of the blend of biological and social science that it actually is.
Interestingly physics envy was original diagnosed in biology, by Joel Cohen (Science, vol. 172, May 14, 1971). And more recently it has been diagnosed in economics by Andrew Lo, in a draft paper posted to the Internet in 2010. Given that psychology is both a biological and a social science, it's no wonder that psychologists suffer from it -- we get it from both directions!
Given the assumption that all we have is the physical world, which is all we appear to have, at least so far as science is concerned, is hard to understand how free will could enter in the closed causal sequence that characterizes the physical world. Automaticity -- in which an environmental stimulus automatically triggers a process that automatically generates a mental state that automatically determines behavior -- is a way to come close to the probabilistic pinball determinism of modern physics, if not the clockwork determinism of the classical Newtonian version.
The distinction between clockwork and pinball determinism comes from The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature by Heinz Pagels (1982).
But why is it social psychologists, like Bargh, and Wilson, and Wegner, who are so avid in promoting automaticity -- social scientists, not neuroscientists, who ought to understand the complexity of human behavior and the role of consciousness in it? The answer to that question, I fear, comes from an unholy alliance between traditional social psychology and behaviorism. Social psychology was traditionally defined, as by Gordon Allport (1954), as the study of social influence -- its subject matter was taken to be the role of the social situation in determining the individual's experience, thought, and action. That is a position that is perilously close to that of Watsonian and Skinnerian behaviorism, which emphasized the association between environmental stimulus and organismal response, with no mental processing inbetween. It is no accident, I think, that Bargh cites Skinner favorably in some of his most prominent articles.
Proponents of automaticity like Bargh do not consider behavior to be caused by the objectively described situation, as Skinner would have had it. Rather, like all cognitive social psychologists, they place emphasis on the person's internal mental representation of the situation, and the cognitive processes by which it is constructed. While it is axiomatic in cognitive social psychology that behavior is a function of the perceived situation, as opposed to the situation as objectively described, Bargh and his confreres argue that the mental representation of the situation is itself constructed automatically and preconsciously. Thus, Bargh and other automaticity theorists are able to maintain a superficial allegiance to cognitivism, while at the same time harkening back to the radical situationism of Skinner, and of earlier, pre-cognitive social psychology, and embracing the conscious inessentialism implicit in the work of Dennett.
With apologies to Alexander Dubcek (1968), and Susan Sontag (1982) I call this
One has to wonder: We had a cognitive revolution for this -- to be told that Skinner had it right after all?
Reading the social-psychological literature on automaticity, one might almost wonder why we bothered to have a cognitive revolution in the first place.
To bring this discussion full circle: To some extent, the "automaticity juggernaut" within contemporary social psychology exemplifies the ambivalence with which the idea of consciousness is held in cognitive psychology and cognitive science (as in Flanagan's conscious shyness). In addition, it seems to reflect a sincere belief, on the part of some social psychologists (including Bargh himself), that a truly scientific explanation of behavior must be deterministic, and leaves no room for anything like conscious will.
Postscript: An Aesopian Warning
I end this on a personal note. For more than 20 years, I have been trying to get psychology to take a non-Freudian view of unconscious mental life seriously. To some extent, the general acceptance of the distinction between automatic and controlled processes, represents the success of this work: automatic processes are, after all, unconscious in the strict sense of the term.
But it is one thing for cognitive psychology to distinguish between automatic and controlled (unconscious and conscious) mental processes, and it is another thing entirely for some social psychologists to abandon conscious mental processes for a view that mental life and behavior are (almost) entirely automatic and unconscious.
One is reminded of the moral of Aesop's fable of The Tortoise and the Eagle:
Be careful what you wish for: You might just get it!
This page last revised 07/11/2020.