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Conclusions of the Research on Nonconscious Information Processing
(A quick "non-technical" summary)
This research (data collected in over 300 experiments) shows that only a small portion of our mental activity (such as gathering information, learning, "thinking") is conscious; the majority of our mental activity is entirely nonconscious. These results fully support a statement made about 20 years ago in an influential Cognitive Psychology textbook:
"Most of what do goes on unconsciously. It is the exception, not the rule, when thinking is conscious, but by its very nature [i.e., because we cannot experience anything else], conscious thought seems the only sort. It is not the only sort; it is the minority." (Lachman, Lachman, & Butterfield, 1979, p. 207)
Conscious vs. nonconscious mind. The results demonstrate that our mind works like a "multi-tasking computer" that can do more than one thing at a time. Conscious mind is only one task. Compared to our nonconscious mind, our conscious mind is relatively limited. While we "watch and consciously experience" only a small part of what is potentially available to us in the outside world, our nonconscious mind is busy processing large amounts of information which is too hidden, too abundant, and/or too complex to be identified by our consciousness. As compared to our ability to acquire information nonconsciously, our conscious mind is incomparably slower; it is also "clumsier," less perceptive, and less capable of detecting complex patterns of information. One can say that our nonconsciousness is "smarter."
The information that is acquired nonconsciously (i.e., the nonconscious "knowledge structures") determines large portions of our personality, preferences, skills, "experience," and it is responsible for crucial aspects of our adjustment and the ability to function efficiently.
A simple example: "speech production." For example, there are thousands of pieces of information and "rules" that we need to "know and apply" in order to use a language: Those are grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules, idiomatic conventions, countless idiosyncrasies and elements of linguistic traditions that are specific for our particular language, region of the country, city, school, neighborhood, family, etc. If we had to "experience" (and be fully aware of) all those processes, decisions, rules, etc. that are necessary to generate the spoken language (e.g., when we communicate with others), then it would take us hours before we would be able to put together a sentence. Moreover, most of us could not even articulate many of those "rules" that we use. For example, although most of us would be able to say which one of the two phrases (a) "a big, red barn" or (b) "a red, big barn" sounds better, very few of us would be able to articulate the rule that is responsible for our choice. That rule must be still somehow "functionally available" to us since we clearly use it; however, it is not available to our consciousness.
The role of nonconsciousness in every-day life. What this example illustrates is that these nonconscious knowledge structures do not represent some "exotic, isolated and rarely used" parts of our mind, but they are involved in virtually every act of perception, cognition, and thought. They are indispensable for "normal" behavior. Every act of perception (and interpretation of what we see or hear) involves using thousands of pieces of information that are necessary to "make sense of the world around us." We use that information so fast (usually in a fraction of a second) that there is no time to "consciously experience" it because our consciousness is too slow.
However, there is also another important reason why we do not experience (and cannot "consciously know") all that information which is used in those instant ("split second") processes of generating our judgments, decisions, or triggering feelings. Namely, this information is too complex to be handled by our conscious mind.
Moreover, that nonconscious knowledge is not always integrated with the consciously held knowledge and beliefs and sometimes it may even be inconsistent with the conscious beliefs, creating strong conflicts and sometimes even leading to mental disorders.
The cognitive concept of nonconsciousness vs. Freudian unconsciousness. The "nonconscious mind," as it is referred to in this summary, has nothing in common with "Freudian" (or in general, psychodynamic) concept of unconsciousness. That is why cognitive psychologists prefer to use the more descriptive term "nonconscious" – as opposed to the psychoanalytic "unconscious." The cognitive nonconsciousness investigated in this (empirical) research tradition does not appear to have any "hidden agenda," drive, need, or any preexisting intelligence or motivation. It does appear to be very intelligent but not because of any preexisting, genetically determined "wisdom." Its intelligence is a byproduct of the extremely effective mechanisms of the acquisition of information. Although the "nonconscious mind" can be often very wrong or biased, the contents of our nonconscious knowledge structures do not include anything that would not be either acquired from the "outside world" or created as a function or a consequence of that acquired information.
The empirical evidence. Experimental (and some quasi-natural experimental) data collected in this lab and supported by other research have demonstrated a number mechanisms that are responsible for:
The dynamic nature of our nonconsciousness. The nonconscious knowledge systems are not static. They constantly change. These changes may lead to a spontaneous ("self-perpetuating") growth of some dispositions on the expense of others, and a spontaneous creation of news ones (e.g., "nonconscious indirect inferences," "the development of meta-knowledge"). The internal dynamics of those changes influences the way we feel, think, reason, and experience the world around us. In most circumstances, this dynamics facilitates our cognition and our ability to efficiently cope with the environment. In some instances, however, it may cause mental disorders.
Psychology Department, University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK 74104, USA
phone: (918) 631-2248, fax: (918) 631-2094, e-mail: PPL@myfastmail.com
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