September 19, 2014, by Tom Stafford
Problems with Bargh’s definition of unconscious
I 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).