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.
The Introspection Illusion
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". 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. 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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