Unconscious Processing and the Role of Attention

Insight into unconscious processes has also contributed to our ideas about creativity. Creativity is usually seen as the result of a three-stage process. It begins with attending to a problem consciously. You think and read about a problem and discuss matters with others. This stage allows the necessary information to be gathered and organized, but during this stage a truly creative idea is rarely produced. The second stage is unconscious; it is the incubation stage during which people think unconsciously. The problem is put aside for a while, and conscious attention is directed elsewhere. The process of unconscious thought sometimes leads to a “Eureka experience” whereby the creative product enters consciousness.


The “Eureka experience” is that moment when an idea enters conscious awareness. [Image: Bart, https://goo.gl/ZMnGFr, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://goo.gl/VnKlK8]

This third stage is one where conscious attention again plays a role. The creative product needs to be verbalized and communicated. For example, a scientific discovery needs detailed proof before it can be communicated to others.

The idea that people think unconsciously has also been applied to decision making (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006). In a recent set of experiments (Bos, Dijksterhuis, & van Baaren, 2008), participants were presented with information about various alternatives (such as cars or roommates) differing in attractiveness. Subsequently, participants engaged in a distractor task before they made a decision. That is, they consciously thought about something else; in this case, they solved anagrams. However, one group was told, prior to the distractor task, that they would be later asked questions about the decision problem. A second group was instead told that they were done with the decision problem and would not be asked anything later on. In other words, the first group had the goal to further process the information, whereas the second group had no such goal. Results showed that the first group made better decisions than the latter. Although they did the exact same thing consciously—again, solving anagrams—the first group made better decisions than the second group because the first thought unconsciously. Recently, researchers reported neuroscientific evidence for such unconscious thought processes, indeed showing that recently encoded information is further processed unconsciously when people have the goal to do so (Creswell, Bursley, & Satpute, in press).

People are sometimes surprised to learn that we can do so much, and so many sophisticated things, unconsciously. However, it is important to realize that there is no one-to-one relation between attention and consciousness (see e.g., Dijksterhuis & Aarts, 2010). Our behavior is largely guided by goals and motives, and these goals determine what we pay attention to— that is, how many resources our brain spends on something—but not necessarily what we become consciously aware of. We can be conscious of things that we hardly pay attention to (such as fleeting daydreams), and we can be paying a lot of attention to something we are temporarily unaware of (such as a problem we want to solve or a big decision we are facing). Part of the confusion arises because attention and consciousness are correlated. When one pays more attention to an incoming stimulus, the probability that one becomes consciously aware of it increases. However, attention and consciousness are distinct. And to understand why we can do so many things unconsciously, attention is the key. We need attention, but for quite a number of things, we do not need conscious awareness.

These days, most researchers agree that the most sensible approach to learn about unconscious and conscious processes is to consider (higher) cognitive operations as unconscious, and test what (if anything) consciousness adds (Dijksterhuis & Aarts 2010; van Gaal, Lamme, Fahrenfort, & Ridderinkhof, 2011; for an exception, see Newell & Shanks, in press). However, researchers still widely disagree about the relative importance or contribution of conscious and unconscious processes. Some theorists maintain the causal role of consciousness is limited or virtually nonexistent; others still believe that consciousness plays a crucial role in almost all human behavior of any consequence.

Note: The historical overview of the way people thought about the unconscious is largely based on Koestler (1964).


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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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