The unconscious in current psychology

  • Norman E
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A series of vignette examples taken from psychological research on motivation, emotion, decision making, and attitudes illustrates how the influence of unconscious processes is often measured in a range of different behaviors. However, the selected studies share an apparent lack of explicit operational definition of what is meant by consciousness, and there seems to be substantial disagreement about the properties of conscious versus unconscious processing: Consciousness is sometimes equated with attention, sometimes with verbal report ability, and sometimes operationalized in terms of behavioral dissociations between different performance measures. Moreover, the examples all seem to share a dichotomous view of conscious and unconscious processes as being qualitatively different. It is suggested that cognitive research on consciousness can help resolve the apparent disagreement about how to define and measure unconscious processing, as is illustrated by a selection of operational definitions and empirical findings from modern cognitive psychology. These empirical findings also point to the existence of intermediate states of conscious awareness, not easily classifiable as either purely conscious or purely unconscious. Recent hypotheses from cognitive psychology, supplemented with models from social, developmental, and clinical psychology, are then presented all of which are compatible with the view of consciousness as a graded rather than an all-or-none phenomenon. Such a view of consciousness would open up for explorations of intermediate states of awareness in addition to more purely conscious or purely unconscious states and thereby increase our understanding of the seemingly ‘‘unconscious’’ aspects of mental life.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Consciousness
  • Decision making
  • Emotion
  • Motivation
  • Unconscious

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  • Elisabeth Norman

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