Adaptive unconscious

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The adaptive unconscious, first coined by Daniel Wagner in 2002, is described as a series of mental processes that is able to affect judgement and decision making, but is out of reach of the conscious mind. Architecturally, the adaptive unconscious is said to be unreachable because it is buried in an unknown part of the brain. This type of thinking evolved earlier than the conscious mind, enabling the mind to transform information and think in ways that enhance an organism's survival. It can be described as a quick sizing up of the world which interprets information and decides how to act very quickly and outside the conscious view. The adaptive unconscious is active in everyday activities such as learning new material, detecting patterns, and filtering information. It is also characterized by being unconscious, unintentional, uncontrollable, and efficient without requiring cognitive tools. Lacking the need for cognitive tools does not make the adaptive unconscious any less useful than the conscious mind as the adaptive unconscious allows for processes like memory formation, physical balancing, language, learning, and some emotional and personalities processes that includes judgement, decision making, impression formation, evaluations, and goal pursuing. Despite being useful, the series of processes of the adaptive unconscious will not always result in accurate or correct decisions by the organism. The adaptive unconscious is affected by things like emotional reaction, estimations, and experience and is thus inclined to stereotyping and schema which can lead to inaccuracy in decision making. The adaptive conscious does however help decision making to eliminate cognitive biases such as prejudice because of its lack of cognitive tools.


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.[1]

In other theories of the mind, the unconscious is limited to "low-level" activities, 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 of the adaptive unconscious 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.[2]


Malcolm Gladwell described intuition, not as an emotional reaction, but a very quick thinking.[3] He said that if an individual realized that a truck is about to hit him, there would be no time think through all of his options and, to survive, he must rely on this kind of decision-making apparatus, which is capable of making very quick judgments based on little information.[4] Gladwell also cited another example in the case of the kouros, which was a statue from ancient Greece acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A team of scientists vouched for its authenticity but some historians such as Thomas Hoving instantly knew otherwise - that they felt an "intuitive repulsion" for the piece, which was eventually proved as fake.[5]

Intuition comes from tapping into the adaptive unconscious. The adaptive unconscious is that liminal zone between dreams and reality, what might be called a reciprocal of experiences, memories, and dreams. Working within the adaptive unconscious involves browsing through a series of sense impressions and making comparisons regarding a situation and using past experiences to dissolve sensory boundaries which then results in intuition. There is also a study that cited intuition as a result of the way our brain stores, processes and uses the information of our subconscious.[6] It becomes useful when reasoning and rationality provide no rapid answer.[6]

The introspection illusion[edit]

Research suggests that many 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".[7] 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 the subject tends to be inaccurate in this "insight." The false explanations of their own behavior is 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.[8] 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.[9][10][11]

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.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ D., Wilson, Timothy (2002). Strangers to ourselves : discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 52. ISBN 0674013824. OCLC 433555287.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Piirto, Jane (2011). Creativity for 21st Century Skills. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. p. 100. ISBN 9789460914621.
  4. ^ Gladwell, Malcolm (2007-04-03). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316005043.
  5. ^ Huffington, Arianna (2015). Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. New York: Harmony Books. p. 133. ISBN 9780804140867.
  6. ^ a b Samier, Henri (2018). Intuition, Creativity, Innovation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 9. ISBN 9781786302915.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Nisbett, Richard E.; Timothy D. Wilson (1977). "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes". Psychological Review. 84 (3): 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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.


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