Conscious and unconscious processes in social psychology

Instructor: Dr. habil. Istvan Siklaki

The concept of unconscious was not a household term in the field of social psychology until recently. However, during the last two decades unconscious (or automatic) processes earned special attention proving that beside conscious processes the cognitive unconscious has a basic role in our social information processing and behaviour – social perception, decision making, self, etc. The relationships between conscious, controlled and unconscious, automatic processes, and their interaction, is not clear as yet.

The topic is an interdisciplinary one as it includes all areas of cognitive science: psychology and social psychology, neuroscience – especially cognitive neuroscience -- linguistics, artificial intelligence, philosophy.

A central issue is the problem of conscious, voluntary control: is there objectively a conscious will that controls our psychological and social psychological processes, or all the phenomena covered by social psychology can be accounted for by non-conscious control processes. What is the origin of our experience that our conscious will controls our behaviour, what are the empirical evidence underlying this experience, or, on the other hand, what are the evidence suggesting that it is a mere illusion.

There are complex theories of consciousness based on empirical data, e.g., the social psychological theory of Baars, or the neurophysiological theory of Sommerhof. In parallel, there is a fast expanding empirical knowledgebase supporting the notion of a cognitive unconscious in a variety of fields such as the influence of emotions on action, the influence of subliminal stimuli on subsequent behaviour, the influence of unconscious factors on the perception of people and social groups, as well as the attitudes, prejudices towards them, the unconscious aspects of the self, etc.

This shift of emphasis from the conscious social processes towards the non- conscious ones might have an important applied consequence, as well: it can have a fundamental effect on the research methodology of social sciences. Evidence is accumulating to the effect that it is rather the rule, than the exception that we are not consciously aware of the underlying factors motivating our behaviour and decisions, i.e., there is hardly any causal relationship between our conscious experiences about our behaviour and the underlying forces. If and where this proves to be true, there is no point directly asking people about their impressions, about the causes of their decisions, i.e., the scope of validity for traditional self-report measures narrows considerably, while, at the same time, traditional and innovative indirect research methodologies gain significance.

The aim of the course is to introduce the participants in the current cognitive theories of conscious and unconscious processes, the conscious and non-conscious aspects of the major social psychological phenomena, the hypotheses about the (evolutionary) functions of conscious (as well as unconscious) processes, and to point out the relevance of such insights for the research methodology of the social sciences.


Hassin, Ran, R. , Uleman, James, S. & Bargh, John, A. (Eds.) (2005) The New Unconscious. Oxford University Press

Frith, Chris (2007) Making up the mind. How the brain creates our mental world. Blackwell

Wegner, Daniel M. (2002) The illusion of conscious will. Bradford Books, The MIT Press