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Are nonconscious processes out of control?

July 16, 2013 0 Comments

I have written several posts about the the question of whether nonconscious processes need to be “protected” from stimuli that trigger them.  The need for protection is derived from a belief that these processes are somehow more vulnerable than conscious processes, and further, that stimulating them can make us do things (specifically, buy things) that we wouldn’t do if that stimulation were routed through our conscious deliberation processes. Here is a review:


Cyclotron control room, 1951.

  • We explored some of the history of this concern in a post about the influence of Vance Packard and the myth of the “hidden persuaders”.
  • We saw how this concern has motivated questions about regulating subliminal messages, and the implications of that for constitutional protections of free speech.
  • We reviewed recent research on TV ad effectiveness that shows how nonconscious or barely conscious (low attention) processes can influence attitudes toward brands in the absence of conscious deliberative processing, but also that conscious deliberation can undo those effects relatively easily.
  • We presented a counter-view of nonconscious processes in a post that described how such processes provide a set of implicit sensing tools that actually facilitate, rather than hinder, our ability to control the influx of messages and signals we receive every second of every day.

There is also a flip side of the “need for protection” argument, which might be described as the “opportunity for exploitation” argument.  This takes the same premise – that nonconscious processes are “out of control” – but turns it into a pitch to marketers about how they can bypass the deliberative brain and gain access to the unguarded “buy button in the brain“.  Both versions of the argument rely on the underlying premise that nonconscious processing is incompatible with control.

So, imagine my surprise to find an article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by two philosophers at UCSD, Christopher Suhler and Patricia Churchland, that directly addresses this issue of control and nonconscious processing.  Churchland is one of the most prominent and influential “neurophilosophers” working today, a MacArthur Fellowship winner and prolific author, so anything she writes is worth taking seriously.

One thread of the article (available here by permission) is that the reality of nonconscious processes is not incompatible with the concepts of control and responsibility.  On the contrary, we need to expand our definition of control to embrace the nonconscious.   The authors note:

A large psychological literature has demonstrated that nonconscious, automatic processes are pervasive and anything but ‘dumb’. Instead, they are often remarkably sophisticated and flexible in performing functions such as goal pursuit that were once considered the sole province of conscious cognition.

In what ways do nonconscious processes facilitate control?  One way is in the exercise of skills:

The exercise of skills is one domain where nonconscious processes are entirely consistent with – and even boost – successful control. … What has emerged from studies of automatization of motor skills is that all parts of the motor network reduce their levels of activity as the skill is acquired.

… Studies of skill acquisition, whether motor or cognitive, also indicate that in skilled or trained individuals, conscious attention is directed not to the intermediate steps, but to the larger aim and to unforeseen hazardous contingencies. Routine control can therefore be automatic (as evidenced, for instance, by increases in anterior cingulate cortex activity with practice), while vigilant control can be directed to other things. A firmly held goal often means that potential distractions are nonconsciously ignored, and that disruptive emotions or drives are nonconsciously suppressed. (emphasis added)

So nonconscious processes can help us filter out distractions (like those subliminal stimuli protectionists are so worried about).

A second way is in enabling conscious executive control functions:

Additional support for the value of automaticity comes from the hypothesis that (conscious) executive control is itself a somewhat limited resource. According to this view, known as the ‘self-regulatory resource model’, the amount of energy people have to expend on conscious self-regulation is limited, with the result that expending it on one task reduces the amount available for other tasks. This suggests that nonconscious processes not only perform control functions of their own but can also help to ensure the efficacy of conscious mechanisms of control. (emphasis added)

So nonconscious processes can operate in conjunction with conscious processes, not in opposition to them.

Finally, the authors validate the critical point that nonconscious processes do not flow directly into behavior, in opposition to conscious goals:

Furthermore, as evidenced by our ability to function while being bombarded by stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis, environmental factors – even if processed below the level of conscious awareness – do not flow straight through to trigger behavior. A reason for this is suggested by the model developed by Miller and Cohen, which … proposes that the prefrontal cortex exerts control by sending bias signals that modulate activity in other brain areas. On this account, the totality of environmental influences – via automatic processes – clearly need not determine behavior. Even if, acting alone, environmental factors were to give rise to a pattern of activity divergent from a goal, the prefrontal cortex could, through bias signals, cause a goal-relevant pattern of activity to prevail instead. (emphasis added)

This article takes up several other topics around control and consciousness, including the underlying neural machinery, and I invite you to read it in full.  It has also spawned some interesting debates out in the blogosphere about consciousness and legal responsibility, such as this one.

In summary, I think Suhler and Churchland’s foray into consciousness and control makes nonconscious processes seem a little less mysterious and a lot less scary.  In contrast to the “protectionist” and “exploitation” perspectives, it presents a scientifically-grounded view of nonconscious and conscious processes not at war with each other, but working in unison to help us monitor, act, and react within a complex world of stimuli, conditions, threats and opportunities.  It blunts both the fear and the hope that persuasive messaging can somehow bypass our mental defenses and turn us into unconscious buying machines.

And of course it implies that consumer research will need to be smarter and more agile to take into account all these interacting elements – conscious and nonconscious, environmental and internal – that contribute to persuasion and behavior in the modern marketplace.
Suhler CL, & Churchland PS (2009). Control: conscious and otherwise. Trends in cognitive sciences, 13 (8), 341-7 PMID: 19646918

Originally posted September 20, 2009.

Photo used with permission.

Filed in: Science • Tags: , ,

About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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