The adaptive unconscious is a set of mental processes influencing judgment and decision making, in a way that is inaccessible to introspective awareness. This conception of the unconscious mind has emerged in cognitive psychology. It was influenced by, but different from, other views on the unconscious mind such as Sigmund Freud's.
The adaptive unconscious is distinguished from conscious processing in a number of ways, including being faster, effortless, more focused on the present, and less flexible.
In other theories of the mind, the unconscious is limited to "low-level" activity, such as carrying out goals which have been decided consciously. In contrast, the adaptive unconscious is thought to be involved in "high-level" cognition such as goal-setting as well.
According to Freud, the unconscious mind stored a lot of mental content which needs to be repressed. The term adaptive unconscious reflects the idea that much of what the unconscious does is beneficial to the organism; that its various processes have been streamlined by evolution to quickly evaluate and respond to patterns in an organism's environment.
Although research suggests that much of our preferences, attitudes and ideas come from the adaptive unconscious, subjects themselves do not realise this: they are "unaware of their own unawareness". They give verbal explanations of their own mental processes—for example why they chose one thing rather than another—as if they could directly introspect the causes of their ideas and choices. In some experiments, subjects provide explanations that are clearly confabulated, suggesting that introspection is instead an indirect, unreliable process of inference. It has been argued that this "introspection illusion" underlies a number of perceived differences between the self and other people, because people trust these unreliable introspections when forming attitudes about themselves but not about others. However, this theory of the limits of introspection has been highly controversial, and it has been difficult to test unambiguously how much information individuals get from introspection.
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