Problems with Bargh’s definition of unconscious

iceberg_cutI have a new paper out in Frontiers in Psychology: The perspectival shift: how experiments on unconscious processing don’t justify the claims made for them. There has been ongoing consternation about the reliability of some psychology research, particularly studies which make claims about unconscious (social) priming. However, even if we assume that the empirical results are reliable, the question remains whether the claims made for the power of the unconscious make any sense. I argue that they often don’t.

Here’s something from the intro:

In this commentary I draw attention to certain limitations on the inferences which can be drawn about participant’s awareness from the experimental methods which are routine in social priming research. Specifically, I argue that (1) a widely employed definition of unconscious processing, promoted by John Bargh is incoherent (2) many experiments involve a perspectival sleight of hand taking factors identified from comparison of average group performance and inappropriately ascribing them to the reasoning of individual participants.

The problem, I claim, is that many studies on ‘unconscious processing’, follow John Bargh in defining unconscious as meaning “not reported at the time”. This means that experimenters over-diagnose unconscious influence, when the possibility remains that participants were completely conscious of the influence of the stimili, but may not be reporting them because they have forgotten, worry about sounding silly or because the importance of the stimuli is genuinely trivial compared to other factors.

It is this last point which makes up the ‘perspectival shift’ of the title. Experiments on social priming usually work by comparing some measure (e.g. walking speed or reaction time) across two groups. My argument is that the factors which make up the total behaviour for each individual will be many and various. The single factor which the experimenter is interested in may have a non-zero effect, yet can still justifiably escape report by the majority of participants. To make this point concrete: if I ask you to judge how likeable someone is on the 1 to 7 scale, your judgement will be influenced by many factors, such as if they are like you, if you are in a good mood, the content of your interaction with the person, if they really are likeable and so on. Can we really expect participants to report an effect due to something that only the experimenter sees variation in, such as whether they are holding a hot drink or a cold drink at the time of judgement? We might as well expect them to report the effect due to them growing up in Europe rather than Asia, or being born in 1988 not 1938 (both surely non-zero effects in my hypothetical experiment).

More on this argument, and what I think it means, in the paper:

Stafford, T. (2014) The perspectival shift: how experiments on unconscious processing don’t justify the claims made for them. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1067. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01067

I originally started writing this commentary as a response to this paper by Julie Huang and John Bargh, which I believe is severely careless with the language it uses to discuss unconscious processing (and so a good example of the conceptual trouble you can get into if you start believing the hype around social priming).

Full disclosure: I am funded by the Leverhulme Trust to work on a project looking at the philosophy and psychology of implicit bias. This post is cross-posted on the project blog.

7 thoughts on “Problems with Bargh’s definition of unconscious”

  1. Very interesting piece indeed. It has long seemed to me that making deep causal or mechanistic claims in this domain is something we need to be very careful indeed about.
    This piece stirred a memory of paper by Roy Baumeister and colleagues ( – they say: ‘…Bargh (1997b) has been bold enough to furnish a precise estimate: ―Our psychological reactions from moment to moment… are 99.44% automatic (p. 243).’
    I recall still the incredulous reaction of my students when I provided this quote. None would take seriously this degree of precision of measurement for processes that are this ill-understood and inaccessible. To be fair, I must read the original context again, but still…

    1. Shane~ I agree, the piece is interesting; however, I find it somewhat superficial and do not entirely agree with some of the research used to validate the argument,particularly, Bargh’s estimate on ‘psychological reactions moment to moment’, regardless of the percentile. Like yourself, I would need to read the original context. In my profession, I personally know many individuals who are, in varying degrees, quite conscious of these things. Observing behavior of others is something I do consistently and with as much objectivity as possible. In fact, I am currently writing on this subject.

    2. Idiomatic note: When someone uses the specific number 99.44%, they do not intend the number to be taken seriously. This is the purity number emblazoned on every package of Ivory Soap (“so pure it floats”).

      Of course, if Bargh didn’t state that at the time, it has to be considered an unconscious slip instead of a joke.

  2. I’ve been suspicious of some of Bargh’s assumptions regarding his research for a while time now. And remember the “replication” controversy from about a year and a half ago? Much of it focused on Bargh and his work. Of course, that didn’t stop Scientific American from still giving Bargh and his work a big cover story and feature article. It seems many of Bargh’s “assumptions” still have a firm hold within the scientific community—whether they’re really true or not.

  3. Another problem is that there is no coherent theoretical mechanism to explain why subliminal presentation (even assuming it activates a presumed experiment-relevant schema) would lead one to act on this “schematic” knowledge behaviorally. More, why would one adopt behaviors consistent with the “schema”? Why not inconsistent (e.g., unconscious defense mechanisms unconsciously kick in to unconsciously distance the individual from “schematic” information at odds with one’s self-conception (the participants were not old folk)?

    With such lax “theory”, almost anything goes.

    1. I agree completely. The issue with so much of this work is not just the replicability or spurious precision, but the focus on (incredible) phenomena without corresponding a coherent theoretical account.

      To be fair to Bargh, elsewhere he does address this question of why primes should work – it is only those which are goal relevant, he claims. How this fits with this particular example of the slowed walking down the hallway, I don’t know

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