Dr. Grossi's Blog

Conscious Will or Unconscious Will?

Dr. Philip Grossi
Saturday, 19 March 2011

Behavioral science recognizes that we can pursue goals in an unconscious manner; but, we think that conscious deliberation and goal setting is a necessary starting point. Indeed, if asked why we are working on a task, we are likely to respond that we decided on a goal and the actions undertaken are to accomplish that goal. The conscious decision precedes the action. Recent work challenges this causal link.  Below I will explore the work that suggests that we can engage in actions without a conscious goal or even knowledge that we have a goal.

illustration to conscious will or unconscious will blogIn 1983, Libet et. al. published the results of a simple but remarkable experiment in which the participants were instructed to move their index finger.  The timing of the move, its preparation in the brain, and when the person became aware of the decision to act were measured.  The results showed that preparation in the brain preceded the decision which preceded the action. The preparation of the finger movement in the brain was well on its way by the time when the subjects consciously decided to act. Apparently, when people are asked to perform a behavior, their conscious will to act starts out unconsciously.  Newer work extends these findings.  J.A.Bargh and colleagues showed that goals can come about and operate unconsciously. Social situations and stimuli in the environment prime the setting of goals in people's minds without their awareness.  This could lead to increased motivation toward a goal, helping others, or to socialize more -- all outside conscious awareness.

The reader might be thinking there is nothing new in  these ideas.  Sigmund Freud proposed that our repressed desires often accounted for behavior.  There is one key difference, however.  Freud's ideas, indeed his whole comprehensive theory, was largely unfalsifiable and contained an explanation for its failings within its own theoretical formulations.  Current research is built on testable theory. The mechanism by which goal representations can lead to goal pursuit unconsciously is poorly understood.  For this reason as well as our view of consciousness and our view of what it is to be human these ideas have met with skepticism and resistance. Additionally, unconscious goal selection and pursuit has implications for many aspects of social life, moral behavior, consumer and health behavior, and social discrimination.

Bargh and colleagues set up social psychological experiments using the so-called "unrelated studies" setup to prime the goal of achievement in U.S. students without their being aware of it.  Students were divided in two groups working on language puzzles.  Some students in the first group were exposed to words related to achievement, such as win or achieve.  Students in this group outperformed students on performance of the second puzzle. In addition, achievement priming also prompted behavioral qualities characteristic of motivational states such as persistence in puzzle solving and flexibility in cognitive processes as measured by the Wisconsin Card Sort.  After extensive debriefing of this group of students, it was clear they did not see the influence of the priming on their subsequent performance.  Thus the effect of achievement priming on subsequent performance  and cognitive flexibility was likely to be unconscious.

Many other researchers have replicated these goal-priming results with different goals and different primes. Furthermore, it has been shown that peoples' pursuits have been influenced by cues in the environment outside their conscious awareness.  Examples here would include people becoming more competitive when seeing a briefcase on a desk, people talking more softly when a picture of a library is on the wall, or cleaning up more if there is a vague scent of cleaning agent in the air.  In summary, there is a large body of research that indicates that the pursuit of goals can be evoked outside of awareness.  Individuals become motivated to initiate and exhibit behaviors in their repertoire when goals that are represented as desired outcomes are primed even though they are not aware of the primed goal.

The principles involved in goal pursuit are the following:

  • take into account the possible outcome
  • take into account whether actions and resources to achieve outcome are available
  • appraise the extent of the reward achieved from the outcome

Do the above require consciousness or not?  There is mounting evidence that pursuit of goals unconsciously can take place.  Lets look at the mechanism for unconscious goal pursuit and unconscious detection of the rewards of a primed goal and preparation of the action to make the goal achievable -- all outside of conscious awareness.

illustration to conscious will or unconscious will blogWhen we get up in the morning and prepare to go to work, we undertake a series of actions that are initiated by thinking about their outcomes such as picking up a cup of coffee and drinking or getting in the car and driving to the office.  These actions are the result of motoric processes, sensory feedback, and perceptions.  Indeed, recent neuroscience research revealed that merely seeing or reading about a behavior or outcome increases the tendency to realize it even if this is out of awareness.  H.C.Lau recently published the results of an experiment where subjects had to code words in terms of sound or meaning depending on the cue that preceded the words. On some words a subliminally presented cue opposite to the task was presented and they found that enhanced brain activity was present in the subliminally presented cue and reduced activity in the consciously cued goal.

Goal pursuit requires more that behavior stemming from priming of goal representation. It requires an appraisal of the value of the reward when compared to the required resources and the effort to overcome whatever obstacles must be overcome.  Can this be done outside of consciousness?  The research seems to be saying yes.  M. Pessiglione and colleagues published their experimental findings in which participants could earn money by squeezing a handgrip.  Prior to each squeeze the money that could be earned was indicated by a 1 pound or 1 penny coin on the screen.  They were presented either visibly or subliminally.  This allowed the researchers to compare the effect of the reward cues within one experiment.  They found that the subjects squeezed harder on the high reward cues than on the low reward cues, no matter whether the cue was visible or subliminal.  In addition this was accompanied by activation of those areas of the brain that play a role in reward processing and the recruitment of effort for action. Reward cues are encoded by the same brain system involved in motivating cognition and action. That these cues can be processed unconsciously has eventuated in the proposal that a positive reward signal associated with outcomes plays a central role in unconscious goal pursuit.  So when the desired outcome or goal is primed, the activated mental representation is tagged with positive affective reward signal.  This reward attachment facilitated the selection of the goal and the subsequent effort to secure the goal.

I think that the above shows that goal pursuit (preparing and taking action and appraising reward) can take place outside of consciousness as can goal origination. The question of how consciousness is related to the unconscious operation is still open and requires further research.