The Unconscious in Social Psychological Processes

These days, most scientific research on unconscious processes is aimed at showing that people do not need consciousness for certain psychological processes or behaviors. One such example is attitude formation. The most basic process of attitude formation is through mere exposure (Zajonc, 1968). Merely perceiving a stimulus repeatedly, such as a brand on a billboard one passes every day or a song that is played on the radio frequently, renders it more positive. Interestingly, mere exposure does not require conscious awareness of the object of an attitude. In fact, mere-exposure effects occur even when novel stimuli are presented subliminally for extremely brief durations (e.g., Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980). Intriguingly, in such subliminal mere-exposure experiments, participants indicate a preference for, or a positive attitude towards, stimuli they do not consciously remember being exposed to.

The research on unconscious processes also greatly improved our understanding of prejudice. People automatically categorize other people according to their race, and Patricia Devine (1989) demonstrated that categorization unconsciously leads to the activation of associated cultural stereotypes. Importantly, Devine also showed that stereotype activation was not moderated by people’s level of explicit prejudice. The conclusion of this work was bleak: We unconsciously activate cultural stereotypes, and this is true for all of us, even for people who are not explicitly prejudiced, or, in other words, for people who do not want to stereotype.


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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