Cognitive Psychology Class Notes > Consciousness


automatic processing:

  • do not require attention
  • automatic processes complete themselves without conscious control
  • involves parallel processing
  • driving a car & listening to the radio
  • reading (Stroop task)

controlled processing:

  • require attention
  • requires conscious control
  • driving a car for the first time

a process can be come automatic through extensive practice:

  • learning to walk
  • learning to drive
  • Underwood (1974) - case study of Neville Moray (shadowing expert)


  • awareness we have of the outside world and of our perceptions, images, and feelings (Matlin)

Consciousness and Cognition

  • often assessed with verbal reports (Ericsson & Simon, 1993)
  • but, not always complete (e.g. cannot verbalize process of pattern recognition)

Automaticity and Thought Suppression

  • thought suppression:
  • making a conscious effort to avoid a particular thought
  • requires one to:
  • plan to supress a thought
  • carry out that plan by suppressing all manifestations of the thought, including the original plan
  • therefore, thought suppression seems to involve a state of knowing and not knowing at the same time
  • Wegner, Schneider, Carter, and White (1987)

---------- EXAMPLE -----------------

Don't think of a white bear.

In the next five minutes, please verbalize your thoughts as you did before, with one exception. This time, try not to think of a white bear. Every time you say "white bear" or have "white bear" come to mind, though, please ring the bell on the table before you.


  • white bear mentions and bell rings almost always occurred when the subject finished a sentence and was silent

Theoretical Conclusions:

  • controlled effort to not think of a white bear
  • automatic search for signs of a white bear
  • thought suppression is difficult to do and is time consuming
  • even when thoughts are supressed, they may return to consciousness with minimum prompting, perhaps to the point of obsessive preoccupations

Practical Applicatons:

  • suppression of thought may lead to obsessive thinking over time
  • smoking, dieting, obsessive-compulsive disorder

Subliminal Perception

  • automatic, unconscious processing of information that has some impact on subsequent behavior
  • searching for sex in ice cubes
  • information exposed for brief periods or among a lot of "noise" so that focused attention cannot process it completely
  • satanic messages in rock music & top-down processing**

Vokey and Read (1985)

  • tested listeners' ability to identify the meaning of backward statements ("backward masking")
  • each statement fit one of 5 categories: nursery rhymes, Christian, satanic, pornographic, or advertising
  • Ss had to identify the category (chance = 20%)
  • listeners performed at chance levels (19%)

indicated that they had not analyzed the meaning of backward speech and little if any information is analyzed and stored in a way that it can be explicitly recalled or recognized

  • BUT... it may affect our emotional responses despite our inability to explicitly remember the meaning of it
  • unconsciously perceived stimuli and affective reactions

Murphy and Zajonc (1993)

  • Ss told to rate Chinese ideographs as "good" or "bad" concepts
  • BUT... before each ideograph was presented it was preceded by a face
  • Ss were presented with smiling faces and scowling faces
  • in one group, faces were presented for 4 ms (below level of awareness)
  • in another group, faces were presented for 1000 ms (well above the level of awareness) -- Ss were told to ignore faces


  • only the unconsciously perceived faces influenced ratings of the ideographs
  • when Ss in the 4 ms group "saw" smiling faces --> "good" concept
  • when Ss in the 4 ms group "saw" scowling faces --> "bad" concept
  • no difference between types of faces for the 1000 ms group


  • Ss were able to ignore faces and not let them influence their ratings --> controlled processing
  • unconsciously perceived faces influenced ratings --> automatic processing

General Conclusions about Consciousness

  • not necessary to be aware of incoming information for it to affect our performanc
  • automatic processing (unlike controlled processing) of information is often related to a lack of conscious awareness
  • automatic processing (unlike controlled) of information is often not detected in verbal reports
  • we will see more about consciousness in higher level cognitive processing!!