Adaptive unconscious

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In cognitive psychology the adaptive unconscious is thought to be a set of mental processes that influence judgment and decision making in a way that is inaccessible to introspective awareness, and thus linked to the unconscious mind.


The adaptive unconscious is defined as different from conscious processing in a number of ways. It is 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 also be involved in "high-level" cognition such as goal-setting.

The theory was influenced by some of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung's views on the unconscious mind. According to Freud, the unconscious mind stored a lot of mental content which needs to be repressed, however the term adaptive unconscious reflects the idea that much of what the unconscious does is actually beneficial to the organism, in closer accordance with Jung's thought. For example, its various processes have been streamlined through evolution to quickly evaluate and respond to patterns in an organism's environment.[1]

The introspection illusion[edit]

Research suggests that much of our preferences, attitudes, and ideas come from the adaptive unconscious. However, subjects themselves do not realize this, and they are "unaware of their own unawareness".[2] People wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states. A subject is likely to give explanations for their behavior (i.e. their preferences, attitudes, and ideas), but a subject tends to be inaccurate in their insight. The false explanations of their own behavior is the what psychologists call the Introspection illusion.

In some experiments, subjects provide explanations that are fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories, but not lies – a phenomenon called confabulation. This suggests that introspection is instead an indirect, unreliable process of inference.[3] 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.[4][5][6]

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.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wilson, Timothy D. (2003). "Knowing When to Ask: Introspection and the Adaptive Unconscious". In Anthony Jack, Andreas Roepstorff. Trusting the subject?: the use of introspective evidence in cognitive science. Imprint Academic. pp. 131–140. ISBN 978-0-907845-56-0. 
  2. ^ Wilson, Timothy D.; Yoav Bar-Anan (August 22, 2008). "The Unseen Mind". Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 321 (5892): 1046–1047. doi:10.1126/science.1163029. PMID 18719269. 
  3. ^ Nisbett, Richard E.; Timothy D. Wilson (1977). "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes". Psychological Review 84: 231–259. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.84.3.231. , reprinted in David Lewis Hamilton, ed. (2005). Social cognition: key readings. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-86377-591-8. 
  4. ^ Pronin, Emily; Matthew B. Kugler (July 2007). "Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Elsevier) 43 (4): 565–578. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.011. ISSN 0022-1031. 
  5. ^ Pronin, Emily (January 2007). "Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment". Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Elsevier) 11 (1): 37–43. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2006.11.001. ISSN 1364-6613. PMID 17129749. 
  6. ^ Pronin, Emily; Jonah Berger; Sarah Molouki (2007). "Alone in a Crowd of Sheep: Asymmetric Perceptions of Conformity and Their Roots in an Introspection Illusion". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 92 (4): 585–595. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.585. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 17469946. 
  7. ^ White, Peter A. (1988). "Knowing more about what we can tell: 'Introspective access' and causal report accuracy 10 years later". British Journal of Psychology (British Psychological Society) 79 (1): 13–45. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1988.tb02271.x. 


Further reading[edit]