Subliminal Consciousness Kihlstrom 1990

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-1957-Significant increases in soft drink and popcorn sales are noted after directives to ‘Drink Coke’ and ‘Eat Popcorn’ were subliminally projected onto a movie screen over a six week period. The duration of the messages were so short that they were never consciously perceived. Despite admission of a hoax, the sales of popcorn rose 57. 7% and the sales of Coca-Cola reportedly rose 18. 1%. (Williamson, 1984) -1985-The families of two boys who committed suicide sued musicians Judas Priest, for allegedly placing in a song a subliminal message – “Do it” – that the plaintiffs believed pushed their sons into suicide (Williamson, 1984).

The Orwellian concept that our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviour’s are capable of control through various mediums gained plausibility in 1957, and created a frenzy of consumer concern after subliminal messages stealthily urged them to purchase. With early researchers understanding that mental structures underlying our actions were not always in the sphere of the conscious, two distinct theories sought to find reason behind these actions. Amidst concerned parents citing subliminal messages as a factor in their youths suicides many theorists have shifted away from Freuds’ dynamic unconscious to an information processing model; a shift in reasoning nonetheless comparable with the psychoanalytic paradigm. According to cognitive psychologists, the unconscious mind does not appear to have any hidden agenda, drive, or any pre-existing intelligence or motivation, unlike the psychoanalytic model.

Freuds’ psychoanalytic theory, is described as motivation ally hot and passionate, both complex and dynamic; an unconscious mind as a primary process that uses sophisticated defences, capable of handling complex bodies of knowledge, serving to best protect the secondary conscious mind (Klinger, 1992). This theory is commonly critiqued for assuming the unconsciousness as a fundamental concept “whilst not having addressed the nature of the assumption itself” (Shevrin, 1980, p 314) Rather than the primitive and irrational psychoanalysis (Kihlstrom, Barnhardt & Tataryn, 1992), cognitive theorists interpret the non conscious mind as analogous to a motiveless multi-tasking computer performing logical and intelligent processes (Eagle, 1987). In the cognitive unconscious, there is great rationality in the ubiquitous computational and associative problem-solving processes required by memory, perception, judgment, and attention. By contrast, the wish-content of the dynamic unconscious makes it operate in a highly illogical way.

Freuds’ dynamic unconscious is the supposed repository of repressed forbidden wishes of a sexual or aggressive nature, which recklessly seek immediate gratification, independently of the constraints of external reality, but whose re-entry or initial entry into consciousness is prevented by the defensive operations of the ego. Where our conscious mind is relatively limited, our non conscious mind is capable of processing large amounts of information, which is hidden and too complex to be identified by our consciousness (Kihlstrom, 1987). According to the info-processing model, our non consciousness is smarter, but not because of any pre-existing, genetically determined wisdom, rather its’ intelligence is a by-product of the extremely effective mechanisms of the acquisition of information (Shevrin, 1980). This suggests that although the non conscious mind can often mislead or bias our decisions, the contents of our non conscious knowledge structures do not include anything that would not be either acquired from the outside world or created as a function of that acquired information.

Identified as a “repository of repressed contents (Eagle, 1987), Freuds’ dynamic unconscious has an important difference with the cognitive non consciousness, primarily in relation to the concept of repression and recover ability of unconscious contents. Freuds’ term repression is the process of forgetting information or experience by ways that are unconscious, unintentional, and automatic but nonetheless recoverable through therapy. However, the distinction that cognitive theory makes is that unconscious events are not recoverable in the conscious mind. A key feature in psychoanalytic theory is Marcels (1983 a, b, cited in Eagle 1987) theory of identity assumption, as it details that repressed thoughts are identical to the conscious idea that was repressed. Mander (1983) and Marcel (1983 b, cited in Eagle, 1987) viewed the relationship between the unconscious and the conscious mind not as repressed ideas and wishes waiting to become conscious but a mental structure of features and schemata drawn upon but not identical to conscious experience that can be selectively activated and deactivated / repressed . Eagle (1987) views the identity assumption as being the prime hurdle between the two theories.

A possible link to the cognitive theorem, is Freuds’ theory of two kinds of unconscious. The preconscious, which is similar to the unconscious but is only latent, and so can easily become conscious, and the unconscious. “Psychoanalysis and cognitive science are probably closest to being identical in their views on the preconscious” (Shevrin, 1980). An initial study into the unconscious (Pierce and Jat sow, 1884, cited in Kihlstrom, 1990) sought to demonstrate that events could not be analysed unless consciously identified. With psychoanalysis’ primary focus being on clinical observation, this led to a conclusion that subliminally presented stimuli had little or no basis or underlying theory and certainly no way to empirically test results. However, since Marcels’ lexical decision study (1983 a, 1993 b cited in Kihlstrom, 1990), researchers are now acknowledging that stimuli presented subliminally cannot only be perceived, but can have a considerable influence over a variety of cognitive processes, possibly even behaviour.

The study of subliminal perception provides an ideal vehicle for researchers to ascertain whether consciousness is necessary for these processes or effects, by observing a production in conscious awareness, essentially allowing researchers to investigate the nature and function of consciousness. The subsequent research appears to suggest an ever-decreasing number of processes for which consciousness is a critical mediator. Many researchers now agree that acquired non conscious knowledge structures determines a large portion of our personality, preferences, skills, experience, and is responsible for the ability to function efficiently. One example is the many pieces of information and rules that we need to apply in order to use language i.

e. grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules, idiomatic conventions, idiosyncrasies and elements of linguistic traditions (Chomsky, 1957 cited in Eagle 1987). Although articulation of many of the rules that are used is virtually impossible, they are still functionally available to us since we clearly use them, despite not being accessible to our consciousness. In addition to linguistic principles, both psychoanalytic and cognitive theorists agree that automatic processes or routinized actions are noted as unconscious procedural knowledge (Kihlstrom, 1990), however, the declarative knowledge structures underpinning automatic actions such as driving a car may or may not operate on structures that are not fully conscious.

Dixon (1981, cited in Kihlstrom, 1990) states that “the possibility that that events are not consciously detected may nonetheless have an impact on perceptual and cognitive functioning.” This invites subliminal perception as an imperative research topic into the study of the unconscious. Subliminal perception occurs below the threshold of conscious sensory experience when a person responds to a stimulus too weak in intensity or too short in duration for awareness to occur. This theory has generated considerable controversy regarding how it should be measured as there is a certain degree of illogicality inherent in it. How can one show that a stimulus has had an influence if a person claims to be unaware of its exact nature or even existence? This paradox has traditionally been resolved using indirect methods showing that stimuli can influence a person’s thoughts or judgments even when they are unable to identify or recognize the st i mules, through a technique called priming (Loftus et al, 1992). For example, in Marcels’s tudy (1983 a, 1983 b, cited in Kihlstrom 1990) a word was flashed on a tachistoscope followed by the subjects acknowledgement of recognition. Subjects were then asked to identify certain strings of letters as words or non-words.

Subliminal influence would be indicated if the subjects were unable to indicate that they were flashed the particular word but were faster to identify words semantically related than those that were unrelated. A decision regarding a stimulus is facilitated or primed when the stimulus follows a semantically related stimulus. This is a commonly used research paradigm seeking a dissociation between measures of conscious and unconscious responses. A research methodology that seeks to resolve one of the major criticisms of dissociation is to show that a lack of conscious processing is proven through a null result – that people cannot report seeing the subliminally presented stimuli. In contrast to dissociation, the exclusion paradigm measures conscious awareness by specifically asking participants not to use the supposedly subliminally presented stimuli when completing a separate task. For example, participants are instructed to complete a sentence fragment with the first word that comes to mind.

Before seeing this fragment, participants would be flashed a particular word and instructed not to use it when completing the word fragment. If they continued to use the stimuli even when instructed not to, then researchers conclude that the stimuli was not perceived consciously. An issue that priming raises is whether or not “its’ effects reflect the acquisition of new knowledge or only the activation of pre-existing information” (Kihlstrom, 1990, p 451) Not only have other studies confirmed Marcel’s original findings (1983 a, 1983 b, cited in Kihlstrom 1990), but they have shown that other stimuli such as pictures, faces, and spoken words can also facilitate unconscious decisions when they are presented under conditions that make it difficult to discriminate one stimulus from another. The conclusion that can be made based on these studies is that considerable information is perceived even when observers experience little or no awareness of perceiving as indicated by their difficulty in discriminating one stimulus from another. In addition to semantic priming, researchers are finding that subliminal perception can influence various other elaborate psychological processes.

For example, after being subliminally presented with words related to hostility, people are more likely to interpret the ambiguous behaviour of another person as hostile (Bargh, 1982, cited in Williamson, 1984). In another example, people with a competitive disposition were more likely to compete in a game after subliminal exposures to competitive words (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996, cited in Williamson, 1984). In an even more impressive study, participants behaved more aggressively towards another student after their concept of hostility had been subliminally activated (Bargh, et. al, 1996; Chen & Bargh, 1997, cited in Williamson, 1984). Lewicki (1986; Lewicki and Hill, 1987, cited in Kihlstrom, 1990) states that this unconscious learning is reinforcing a prejudice or biased belief. For example, one group of volunteers taking a test were slightly derided by an experimenter while explaining to them how to fill out a form.

Another group completed the form without this minor aggravation. Later, all subjects were told to go to another room and give the form to whichever of the two assistants was not busy. Although neither assistant was busy, the subjects in the first group tended to avoid the assistant whose hairstyle resembled that of the rude experimenter, even though they later denied that the annoyance had influenced their behaviour. These findings raise many questions regarding the limits of subliminal influence and, more generally, of the extent to which our thoughts, judgments, and behaviour’s are triggered automatically by the environment. What these examples further illustrate is that these non conscious knowledge structures are involved in virtually every act of perception, cognition, and thought. Every act of perception involves using many pieces of information so fast that there is no time to consciously experience it because our consciousness is too slow.

In contrast to psychoanalytic theory, cognitive theorists state that human non conscious cognitive systems are capable of extensive manipulation of information of which the individual has no conscious awareness. The implications of these findings to understanding human social interaction, the development of biases, and the generation of psychopathological responses constitute crucial research problems for psychology in the future, as cognitive theorists base their thoughts on structures and processes whereas psychoanalysts focus on emotions and motivations. Demonstrated by other research a number of mechanisms are found to be responsible for: non conscious learning and acquisition of new dispositions; the non conscious influence of that information on our judgments, decisions, feelings, and emotional responses; and the internal dynamics (changes and constant spontaneous re organisations) of those non conscious knowledge systems. According to Kihlstrom (1990) four different aspects of the cognitive unconscious have been revealed; Schacters’ (1987) implicit memory; Marcels’ (1983 a, 1983 b) implicit perception; Bowers’ (1984, 1987) implicit thought; and Rebers’ (1976, 1989) implicit learning. As Shevrin (1980) states both theories “are closer to being languages of description rather than explanation” revealing the importance of sharing ideas and terms thus improving communication and collaboration in research. With psychoanalysis focussing on motives and conflicts and cognitive psychology concentrating on underlying processes, the distance between the two appears to be insurmountable.

However, with a twin uneasiness with neuro psychologies’ role in the unconscious and the “further development of attention theory” (Eagle, 1987), the two will surely converge. A theme that links many claims regarding subliminal perception is that perception in the absence of an awareness of perceiving is somehow more powerful or influential than perception that is accompanied by an awareness of perceiving. This idea is not supported by the results of controlled laboratory investigations of subliminal perception. Rather, the findings from controlled studies indicate that subliminal perception, when it occurs, reflects a person’s usual interpretations of stimuli. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that people initiate actions based on subliminal perception, rather, an awareness of stimuli must be perceived before an initiation of actions or change in habitual reactions to these stimuli can occur. Thus, although subliminal perception may allow us to make accurate guesses regarding the characteristics of stimuli, we should be careful not to use it in a desire for quick solutions to difficult problems or blame when a quick solution does not work.

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