The unbearable automaticity of be...
The Unbearable Automaticity of Being John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand New York University 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 system- atically processing incoming information in order to con- strue 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 psycho- logical life must occur through nonconscious means if it is to occur at all. The authors then describe the different possible mechanisms that produce automatic, environmen- tal control over these various phenomena and review evi- dence 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 evalu- ation of one's experience. From the accumulating evi- dence, the authors conclude that these various noncon- scious mental systems perform the lion's share of the self-regulatory burden, beneficently keeping the individual grounded in his or her current environment. The strongest knowledge���that of the total unfreedom of the human will���is nonetheless the poorest in successes, for it always has the strongest opponent: human vanity. ���Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human I magine for a moment that you are a psychology pro- fessor who does experiments on conscious awareness. You keep finding that your subtle manipulations of people's judgments and even behavior are successful��� causing your experimental participants to like someone or to dislike that same person, to feel happy or sad, to behave rudely or with infinite patience. However, none of your participants have a clue as to what caused them to feel or behave in these ways. In fact, they don't believe you, and sometimes even argue with you, when you try to explain your experiment to them and how they were caused to feel or behave. Now, let's say you are home with your family for the holidays or on vacation. Your aunt or brother-in-law asks politely what your job is like. You attempt to explain your research and even some of your more interesting findings. Once again you are met with incredulity. "This can't be so," says your brother-in-law. "I can't remember this ever happening to me, even once." Our thesis here���that most of a person's everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and delib- erate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance���is a difficult one for people to accept. One cannot have any experiences or memories of being nonconsciously influenced, of course, almost by definition. But let us move from the layperson to the experts (namely, psychological researchers) and see what they have to say about the relative roles played by conscious versus nonconscious causes of daily experience. The major historical perspectives of 20th-century psy- chology can be distinguished from one another based on their positions on this question: Do people consciously and actively choose and control (by acts of will) these various experiences and behaviors, or are those experiences and behaviors instead determined directly by other factors, such as external stimuli or internal, unconscious forces? Freud (e.g., 1901/1965), for example, considered hu- man behavior to be determined mainly by biological im- pulses and the unconscious interplay of the psychic forces those impulses put into motion. The individual was de- scribed as usually unaware of these intrapsychic struggles and of their causal effect on his or her behavior, although it was possible to become aware of them (usually on Freud's couch) and then change one's patterns of behavior. Early behaviorist theory (e.g., Skinner, 1938 Watson, 1913) similarly proposed that behavior was outside of conscious control, but placed the source of the control not in the psyche but in external stimulus conditions and events. Environmental events directed all behavior in com- bination with the person's reinforcement history. A third major perspective emerged in midcentury with Rogers's (1951) self theory and the humanist movement (Kelly, 1955 Rotter, 1954). In what was a reaction to the then-dominant Freudian and behavioristic perspectives, in which "people were thought to be either pushed by their inner drives or pulled by external events" (Seligman, 1991, Editor's note. Denise C. Park served as action editor for this article. Author's note. John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, Department of Psychology, New York University. Tanya L. Chartrand is now at the Department of Psychology, Ohio State University. Preparation of this article was supported in part by Grant SBR- 9809000 from the National Science Foundation. We thank Ap Dijkster- huis, Wendi Gardner, Ran Hassin, Larry Jacoby, and Dan Wegner for helpful comments on a draft of the article. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to John A. Bargh, Department of Psychology, New York University, 6 Washing- ton Place, Seventh Floor, New York, NY 10003. Electronic mail may be sent to email@example.com. 462 July 1999 ��� American Psychologist Copyright 1999 by the American Psychological Association. Inc. 0003-066X/99/S2.00 Vol. 54, No. 7, 462-479
John A. Bargh pp. 8-9), the "causal self" was placed as a mediator be- tween the environment and one's responses to it. In these self-theories, behavior was adapted to the current environ- ment, but it was determined by an act of conscious choice. Fifty years later, this perspective remains dominant among theories of motivation and self-regulation (e.g., Bandura, 1986, 1990 Cantor & Kihlstrom, 1987 Deci & Ryan, 1985 Dweck, 1996 Locke & Latham, 1990 Mischel, Cantor, & Feldman, 1996). Finally, the contemporary cognitive perspective, in spirit as well as in practice, seeks to account for psycho- logical phenomena in terms of deterministic mechanisms. Although there exist models that acknowledge the role played by higher-order choice or "executive" processes, the authors of these models generally acknowledge that the lack of specification of how these choices are made is an inadequacy of the model. Neisser's (1967) seminal book Cognitive Psychology, for example, describes the "problem of the executive," in which the flexible choice and selection processes are described as a homunculus or "little person in the head" that does not constitute a scientific explanation. This position is echoed in Barsalou's (1993) text, in which he too calls free will a homunculus, noting that "most cognitive psychologists believe that the fundamental laws of the physical world determine human behavior com- pletely" (p. 91).1 Fortunately, contemporary psychology for the most part has moved away from doctrinaire either-or positions concerning the locus of control of psychological phenom- ena, to an acknowledgment that they are determined jointly by processes set into motion directly by one's environment and by processes instigated by acts of conscious choice and will. Such dual-process models (see Chaiken & Trope, 1999), in which the phenomenon in question is said to be influenced simultaneously by conscious (control) and non- conscious (automatic) processes, are now the norm in the study of attention and encoding (e.g., Logan & Cowan, 1984 Neely, 1977, 1991 Posner & Snyder, 1975 Shiffrin, 1988), memory (e.g., Jacoby, 1991 Schachter, 1987 Squire, 1987), emotional appraisal (e.g., Lazarus, 1991), emotional disorders (e.g., Beck, 1976), attitudes and per- suasion (Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989 Fazio, 1990 Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), and social perception and judg- ment (e.g., Bargh, 1994 Devine, 1989 Fiske & Neuberg, 1990 Gilbert, 1991 Trope, 1986). Thus, the mainstream of psychology accepts both the fact of conscious or willed causation of mental and behavioral processes and the fact of automatic or environmentally triggered processes. The de- bate has shifted from the existence (or not) of these different causal forces to the circumstances under which one versus the other controls the mind. Is everyday life mainly comprised of consciously or of nonconsciously caused evaluations, judg- ments, emotions, motivations, and behavior? As Posner and Snyder (1975, p. 55) noted a quarter century ago, this question of how much conscious control we have over our judgments, decisions, and behavior is one of the most basic and important questions of human exis- tence. The title of the present article makes our position on this question a matter of little suspense, but to make the reasons for that position clear and hopefully compelling, we must start by defining what we mean by a conscious mental process and an automatic mental process. The de- fining features of what we are referring to as a conscious process have remained consistent and stable for over 100 years (see Bargh & Chartrand, in press): These are mental acts of which we are aware, that we intend (i.e., that we start by an act of will), that require effort, and that we can control (i.e., we can stop them and go on to something else if we choose Logan & Cowan, 1984). In contrast, there has been no consensus on the features of a single form of automatic process (Bargh, 1994) instead two major strains have been identified and studied over the past century, similar only in that they do not possess all of the defining features of a conscious process (see Bargh, 1996 Bargh & Chartrand, in press Wegner & Bargh, 1998). First, research on skill acquisition focused on inten- tional, goal-directed processes that became more efficient over time and practice until they could operate without conscious guidance (see J. R. Anderson, 1983 Jastrow, 1906 Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977 Smith & Lerner, 1986). These were intentional but effortless mental processes. Second, research on the initial perceptual analysis or en- coding of environmental events (called "preattentive" or "preconscious" processing) showed that much of this anal- ' The existence of dominant, overarching perspectives concerning free will and self-determination does not mean, of course, that everyone working within a given perspective adheres to its dominant assumption. A notable exception within cognitive psychology is the approach of Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991), who argue that higher-order phenomena such as free will and the self are the result of a complex interaction between the mind and the world, and hence cannot be satisfactorily explained through mechanism alone. July 1999 ��� American Psychologist 463
Tanya L. Chartrand ysis takes place not only effortlessly, but without any intention or often awareness that it was taking place (e.g., Neisser, 1967 Posner & Snyder, 1975 Treisman, 1960). The "new look" in perception of the 1940s and 1950s, in which threatening or emotion-laden words or symbols were purportedly shown to be "defended against" through hav- ing higher perceptual thresholds than more neutral stimuli (see Allport, 1955 Erdelyi, 1974), is a prototypic example of this line of research. These are the two classic forms of "not-conscious" mental processes both forms operate ef- fortlessly and without need for conscious guidance, but one (mental skills) requires an act of will to start operation, and the other (preconscious) does not. So much for how the field of psychology has histori- cally thought about automatic processes let's return to our aunts and in-laws. What does the concept mean to them? The popular meaning of "automatic" is something that happens, no matter what, as long as certain conditions are met. An automatic answering machine clicks into operation after a specified number of phone rings and then records whatever the caller wants to say. No one has to be at home to turn it on to record whenever the phone happens to ring. Automatic piloting systems on airplanes now perform many sophisticated and complex functions to keep the plane on course and to land it under poor visibility and weather conditions, actually making air travel safer than when such functions were handled entirely by the human pilots. In modern technological societies one encounters many such automatic devices and systems in the course of daily life. They are all devised and intended to free us from tasks that don't really require our vigilance and interven- tion, so that our time and energy can be directed toward those that do. And these systems also perform their tasks with a greater degree of reliability, as they are not prone to sources of human error, such as fatigue, distraction, and boredom. Just as automatic mechanical devices free us from having to attend to and intervene in order for the desired effect to occur, automatic mental processes free one's limited conscious attentional capacity (e.g., Kahneman, 1973 Miller, 1956 Posner & Snyder, 1975) from tasks in which they are no longer needed. Many writers have pointed out how impossible it would be to function effec- tively if conscious, controlled, and aware mental process- ing had to deal with every aspect of life, from perceptual comprehension of the environment (both physical and so- cial) to choosing and guiding every action and response to the environment (e.g., Bateson, 1972 Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960 N0rretranders, 1998). But none put it so vividly as the philosopher A. N. Whitehead: It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle���they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments. (Whitehead, 1911) Whitehead (1911) presaged what psychological re- search would discover 86 years later. Baumeister, Tice, and their colleagues recently demonstrated just how limited conscious self-regulatory capacities are in a series of stud- ies on what they called "ego depletion" (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998 Muraven, Tice, & Baumeister, 1998). In their experiments, an act of self- control in one domain (being told not to eat any of the chocolate chip cookies sitting in front of you) seriously depletes a person's ability to engage in self-control in a subsequent, entirely unrelated domain (persistence on a verbal task), which was presented to participants as being a separate experiment. Table 1 presents the variety of simple ways in which participants' conscious self-regulatory ca- pacity was depleted to cause performance decrements on the unrelated task that followed. Tice and Baumeister concluded after their series of eight such experiments that because even minor acts of self-control, such as making a simple choice, use up this limited self-regulatory resource, such conscious acts of self-regulation can occur only rarely in the course of one's day. Even as they were defending the importance of the conscious self for guiding behavior, Baumeister et al. (1998, p. 1252 also Baumeister & Sommer, 1997) con- cluded it plays a causal role only 5% or so of the time. Given one's understandable desire to believe in free will and self-determination, it may be hard to bear that most of daily life is driven by automatic, nonconscious mental processes���but it appears impossible, from these findings, that conscious control could be up to the job. As Sherlock Holmes was fond of telling Dr. Watson, when one eliminates the impossible, whatever remains���however improbable���must be the truth. 464 July 1999 ��� American Psychologist