The Situationist

The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 15, 2007

In their 2003 article, “The Situational Character,” Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon summarized some of the evidence indicating that we greatly overestimate the role of our consciousness and of our will.

Over the next few weeks, we will offer a series of posts containing, not only Hanson and Yosifon’s general summary, but also other summaries of the more recent research on the hidden situation of our consciousness. This post begins with Hanson and Yosifon’s summary of some of the fascinating research on “automaticity” and the illusion of conscious will. As they argue, the failure to appreciate the ubiquity of automaticity and the illusion of conscious will are major contributors to the dispositionist deception — the sense that, not situation, but our conscious will, is calling the shots and pulling the levers of our own behavior.

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. . . Daniel Wegner concludes, in a book that brings together generations of experimental research on the felt experience of human will, that “conscious will is an illusion. It is an illusion in the sense that the experience of consciously willing an action is not a direct indication that the conscious thought has caused the action.” Two other leading researchers of the will, [Situationist contributor] John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand, have made an extremely compelling, if unsettling, case that “most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by [her] conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance”—a thesis that they acknowledge is “difficult . . . for people to accept.”

In part for that reason, we want to be certain that the claim is not misconstrued. None of the researchers in this field of social science have concluded, nor do we, that the “conscious will” is purely and totally an illusion. What is asserted—and what researchers have demonstrated—is that the experience of will is far more widespread than the reality of will. Wegner calls the latter the empirical will and argues that our perceived will is often an unreliable and misleading basis for understanding our behavior. The experience of will occurs often without empirical will, and thus creates the illusion of will. Moreover, it contributes to the illusions of choice, preference, and, more generally, dispositionism.


Exhibit A in the case that our conscious will is not as central as we presume is the fact that our conscious attentional capacity is extraordinarily limited. Remember your first attempt at driving a manual transmission automobile—before the processes became automatic. If you are like the stick shiftauthors, the memory still causes some embarrassment. Images of stalling, chugging, and squealing evince the limits of our ability to tell our feet and legs—much less the car—precisely how to behave. Now suppose that, at the same time you were attempting to let the clutch out with your left foot while depressing the gas pedal with your right, you were attempting to have a serious phone conversation with a friend about, say, your love problems. Such multitasking would be all but impossible given the severe limits on our ability to be consciously attentive.

The point has been demonstrated in numerous experiments. For instance, studies have shown that eating radishes instead of available chocolates depletes one’s ability to persist in attempting to solve puzzles, and that suppressing emotional reactions to a movie depletes one’s ability to solve anagrams or to squeeze a handgrip exerciser. The unhappy truth is that because “even minor acts of self-control, such as making a simple choice, use up [one’s] limited self-regulatory resource, conscious acts of self-regulation can occur only rarely in the course of one’s day.” Social psychologists studying the phenomenon have concluded that, in our daily lives, our conscious will “plays a causal role only [five percent] or so of the time.” Little wonder that the growing popularity of cell phones has made driving generally more dangerous, even for experienced drivers.

Exhibit B in the case for automaticity is the now-cascading evidence demonstrating the extent to which our choice biases, our schemas, our memories, our attributions, our affective responses, our motives, our perceptions, and so on are activated automatically—outside our conscious awareness, and often by exterior situational features and events. The evidence of implicit attitudes summarized above is just a small strand of the larger fabric of automaticity operating within our interiors.

There is also mounting evidence that our automatic perceptions are linked to our behavior, also through automatic means. Charles Carver and his colleagues, for instance, found that subjects participating as the “teacher” in a Milgram-esque experiment tended to give longer shocks when they had been primed with a list of hostility-related words. More recently, John Bargh and his collaborators have made numerous demonstrations of the automatic perception-behavior link. In one experiment, for example, some subjects were primed with words related to rudeness, others, with words related to politeness. The subjects were then placed in a situation that presented both an opportunity and motive to interrupt an ongoingimage from Ferrari et al., PLoS Biology conversation. The first, rude-primed group interrupted more than sixty percent of the time, while the second, polite-primed group interrupted less than twenty percent of the time. In other studies, subjects primed with stereotypical qualities of elderly people (e.g., wrinkles, Florida) behaved more like elderly people—walked more slowly, were more forgetful, and so on—than subjects who were not similarly primed. And Chartrand and Bargh have shown in other experiments that, without being aware of it, subjects often engage in so-called “behavior matching,” or the “chameleon effect.” For instance, when subjects are placed next to an interaction partner who is either rubbing his or her face or shaking his or her foot, the subjects tend to engage in behavioral patterns matching those of their interaction partner.

But the automaticity doesn’t stop there. Although we sometimes intentionally try to transform our conscious acts into automatic behavior—recall how you practiced playing the piano, dribbling a basketball, or driving that darn stick shift—much of what becomes automatic does so automatically. And that includes many of our goals and motivations. In one study, for instance, subjects were asked to rearrange scrambled words to make a sentence. Some subjects were nonconsciously primed to succeed because the words included items like “strive,” “achieve,” and “succeed.” Others were given neutral words that would not prime the goal to achieve. All of the subjects then were given a second, timed task—to rearrange letters in words to create new words. The anagrams ranged from simple to impossible. After completing the anagrams or running out of time, the subjects filled out questionnaires about their moods. Subjects who were not primed to succeed reported similar moods whether they performed well or poorly. The moods of the subjects who were primed to succeed, however, varied depending on whether they succeeded or failed. That is, they seemed to care about how well they performed, even though they were unaware of what caused their moods, much less that it was the success-oriented words they encountered in the first task. Subjects were, beneath their conscious radars, given a goal that they did not even know they had, and that goal remained, hidden in their interior situation, shaping their moods in ways they neither saw nor appreciated.

Our automatic goals are quite pervasive. When we commonly adopt a particular goal in a given situation—be it the workplace, the classroom, or the ping-pong table—that goal is likely to be triggered automatically in that situation, whether or not we want it to be triggered. As with all evidence of situational influence, such automatic goal-setting and mood-effect evidence further reveals the extent to which we humans are susceptible to situational manipulation.

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To read Hanson and Yosifon’s law review article from which this excerpt is drawn, go to “The Situational Character.” For a sample of previous posts discussing the role of unconscious and automatic causes of behavior, see “The Situation of Reason,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.”

One Response to “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I”

  1. […] a sample of previous posts discussing the role of unconscious and automatic causes of behavior, see Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of the series titled “The Unconscious Situation of our […]

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