Good Question….does the reality of unconscious processes undermine Christianity?

[ Final Draft: September 30, 2002              |             Part Two: The biblical data   ]


I received this intriguing question from Europe:


Regarding Consciousness, the Soul and the Freedom of Will / Responsibility:


While you mention "priming" in your text on the Soul, there is new evidence out on priming which casts serious doubt on the free choice. These data are mainly obtained by J.A. Bargh, Gollwitzer and other researchers.


Just an example: They (unconsciously) primes participants in studies to cognitive concepts of "hostility and rudeness" or "politeness" or none at all (control group). After that, they tested how these unconscious primes would affect behaviour - and indeed it did: 65% of those primed with "hostility" interrupted a conversation of two confederates as compared to ca 34% in the control group and 17% in the "politeness" primed group.


This is just one example of many studies on priming and the unconscious generation of ethical relevant behaviour. (Much of this research is on the web, so I won't bother with links since there would be to many - just look for "Bargh and priming and automaticity" and you'll find enough stuff.


All in all, these finding show that the concept of responsibility is highly doubtful.


This is relevant because without freedom of will (i.e., freedom of conscious choice) there is no guilt. But responsibility is one of the main foundation of Christianity. Furthermore, these data suggest that intentionality can be triggered by mainly unconscious ways, which undermines the very concept.  Intentionality and the ability to choose is one of the main reasons that it makes sense to deposit a soul. After all, if the soul does nothing else than being conscious, this raises the probability that the soul is indeed an emergent phenomenon, but has no causal powers in and of itself.


But the main problem is: no free will doesn't fit well with responsibility.



[The question points out that I made a reference to priming on my piece on the Existence of the Soul, and I have another brief discussion of automatic stereotyping in one installment of my Miracles series.]


Priming (and Cognition/Social Cognition generally) studies are--IMO--some of the most fascinating research topics today, and Bargh and Gollwitzer are some of the more enjoyable writers among the major researchers, in addition to being careful, innovative, and lucid researchers.


Our research in this piece will draw mainly from their writings (and those of their major co-authors, of course), with some additional information coming from other writers in the field.


As I understand the question above, it might be paraphrased something like this:



  1. Ethically-relevant behavior (e.g., rudeness, politeness) can be triggered by the use of subconscious priming techniques.

  2. The fact that this type of "intentional"-looking behavior can be triggered by unconscious (i.e., not by conscious choices of will) means, implies that the person is not 'free' to do otherwise.

  3. The lack of free will over such ethically-relevant behavior undermines notions of moral responsibility, including those of Christianity.





Now, I think I will need to give a good bit of explanatory background on this for our wider reading audience, so I'll start with the phenomena of priming and automaticity, with most of this information drawn from Bargh/Gollwitzer/collaborators and those summarizing their works.


[I will cite the works in the general manner they are cited in the social science literature, with the full article information at the end of this article. Occasionally, in reproducing quotes from this material, I will remove internal citations [e.g. "(Miller & Johnson, 1999)'] and simply note with a "(-)" that the quote referenced some other document, not in my biblio. Readers interested in the next-level-out literature can go to the original source docs and find the contents of those omitted references. I left the (-) marker in, so the reader could know that a source could be found, should they desire further study.]




There are two initial concepts that we need to understand here: automatic processes (automaticity) and priming.



Automatic processes. A very simplified analogy of this would run something like this (my version):


Unconscious processes are like different battery-powered action figure toys. They have an on-off switch that is cut 'ON' by external stimuli in the perceptions of the human. They are dormant without an activating stimulus in the perceived environment, but once something flips the switch all the way to 'ON', they perform their 'standard routine' of behavior (e.g., fighting, singing, dancing, marching). These action figures perform their routines without the human's conscious awareness, conscious involvement, or even any conscious 'investment'. They run to completion--sometime varying their action, depending on circumstances (like a toy vehicle might back up and adjust its trajectory by 10% once it was stopped by some obstacle). They can interact with other activated toys, even in competition with them. They perform actions (e.g., moving an object, making a noise, flashing a light) that can also be performed by the human person in a conscious and deliberate manner.




As automatic unconscious, nonconscious, subconscious, and/or preconscious processes, they are somewhat similar to reflexes, habits, or instincts, although they can be much more complex than these.


These processes are studied under the term 'automaticity'.


Let's look at some of the descriptions of these processes:










Now this last quote introduces us to question of origin--where exactly do these automatic processes come from? How did the action figures get there and how did they get their specific behaviors?


They come from 'practice'--or at least 'frequent and consistent experience' (above).


We are not 'born' with these, but they develop from repeated experiences and perceptual associations, and in the case of habits and goals, from repeated conscious, volitional choices! Bargh and Barndollar (1996) actually call the unconscious "routinized consciousness" (p.460). Essentially, these little action figures are "mini-me" versions of a specific pattern of our behavior, volition, evaluations, motives, goals, and social cognitions. They are basically 'I-bots' who DO as we DID, and act like we acted, and "think" like we thought. In many ways, they are 'encapsulations of consistently exercised volition' (or of consistently perceived/noticed 'associations'--recognizing that personal goals affect what we attend to in our perceptual space).


Let's look at some of the statements, noticing words like 'chronic', 'goals', 'intentions', 'conscious', 'consistent experience', 'volition', 'effortful', 'choice', 'mental', 'strategic' to see this source-connection:



































Consider this longer quote from Bargh/Barndollar:


"In all of the examples given above --playing tennis, driving a car, making social judgments, engaging in self-relevant thought-- the person intends to engage in the activity. Once that conscious act of will takes place, the goal operates interactively with environmental information without the need for conscious guidance; however, the act of will is necessary to start the process in motion. Therefore, one should not --and we certainly do not-- construe them as evidence for unconscious behavior (see Logan & Cowan, 1984).


"What these examples do show, however, is that the goals that an individual frequently and consistently pursues in a given situation are capable of operating autonomously and without the need for conscious guidance. What starts them in motion? It is the activation of the goal or intention - the "top node" in the goal system under which the substrategies and processes are subsumed.


"The 'auto-motive' model (Bargh, 1990) makes a fundamental prediction: that this goal or intention itself--this complex strategy of interacting with the world--can be activated or triggered by environmental stimuli. In other words, the environment can directly activate a goal, and this goal can then become operative and guide cognitive and behavioral processes within that environment, all without any need or role for conscious decision-making. Because there is no involvement of conscious processing at any point in the chain from the triggering environmental information to the enactment of goal-directed action, such  phenomenon can accurately be described as "unconsciously motivated" behavior.


"Thus, what the auto-motive model adds to the already extant and well-accepted notion of autonomous, well-practiced skills or goals is that the initiating act of will itself can become delegated to the environment. Take again the example of driving (one we have gotten a lot of 'mileage' out of in the past). We have argued above that driving is a complex perceptual-motor skill, in which decisions as to how to move the wheel, how hard to push the accelerator, when to be ready to hit the brakes, and so on are guided nonconsciously (in the experienced driver) by environmental information. In other words, these behavioral decisions are activated by the information in the environment relevant to those decision processes. Now recall that those decisions, in the novice and less experienced driver, are at first made consciously. Therefore, with experience, decisions that used to have to be made consciously no longer are, and what makes those decisions if conscious processes do not? Those decisions as to what to do next--what subgoal to follow, in other words --are made directly on the basis of the environmental information present. The information itself triggers those goal-directed actions.


"Thus, in principle, there is no reason to believe that the goal "to drive," or, to take a more social example, "to be patient," cannot be removed from conscious control and delegated to the environment. This is the key hypothesis of the auto-motive model of unconscious motivations--that conscious intent or will can be bypassed, that the gap between environment and the autonomous goal can be bridged, making the entire process from start to finish nonconscious." [Bargh and Barndollar/1996, p. 462f] (notice, btw, that it is not the goal content which is being delegated to the environment, but rather only activation of a pre-existing, internalized, automated goal. We will discuss assumption of external goals under mimicry processes later.)



So, it looks like unconscious processes were originally conscious processes, and only became automatic once they were practiced enough--frequently and consistently in the same environmental setting--to become 'habit-like'. All my little 'action figures' have MY face on them, apparently. Environmental stimuli--which match the stored environmental representations of those experiences--activate these mini-habits or automatic-responses, which formerly were deliberately performed by conscious will.


[So far, this doesn't sound too much like something that refutes 'free will', in any traditional sense. If I intend to throw a right-arm block whenever someone throws a punch at me, and I practice this move sufficiently to where it becomes almost a reflex, then it would be very, very odd to call my use of this reflex in the future as something 'against my will', or 'unintentional'. It would be automatic and without conscious activation at the future incident, but 'stored will' is still 'will'…]


But bad habits can be learned also, and surprise me at 'awkward' moments, and addictions seem to be 'against my will' at some level…Let's continue describing the range of automatic processes, and then look more at how automatic processes relate to non-automatic, conscious control processes.



But first, let's get an overview of Priming research/usage…


Priming. Priming is the use of external stimuli (conscious or nonconscious) to either (a) temporarily turn 'ON' an automatic process; or (b) temporarily 'call up' a person's way of looking/perceiving an environmental scene. For example, one might 'prime' a research subject with images of the elderly, to 'call up' to their working 'view' of their perspectives, stereotypes, and associations about the elderly.


In the case of automatic processes, it is important to note that this kind of priming is not CREATING the automatic process, but simply activating it. There are a few limits to what can be primed, with a special (and obvious by now) limitation being that you cannot 'prime' an automatic process  without it already being present in the test subject in some form. You cannot therefore 'create' a process by priming--only 'turn one on'. And, generally, the process calls up a person's pre-existing representations, instead of creating new ones.


·         "The first use of the term 'priming' to refer to the temporary internal activation of response tendencies was by Karl Lashley in a 1951 article." (Bargh & Chartrand/2000, p.255)




·         "What all three types of priming (conceptual, mindset, sequential) have in common is a concern with the unintended consequences of an environmental event on subsequent thoughts, feelings, and behavior. They address the residual effects of one's use of a representation in comprehending or acting on the world, which leaves the primed representation, or any other representation automatically associated with it, active for some time thereafter. During the time it remains active, it exerts a passive effect on the individual, one that he or she is not aware of and does not intend--and is therefore unlikely to control." (Bargh & Chartrand/2000, p.259)











OK. So, what is/are the range and/or limitations of automaticity (and priming of such processes)?


Given that the bulk of our mental-minutia life would be automatic--since conscious activity is very, very consumptive of resources--how 'powerful' are these processes (including stereotype activation)? They 'run to completion', but does that guarantee that each activation produces a real-world behavior, or that automatic processes are always activated upon the presence of some element in the environment?


·         "Results confirmed that the automaticity effect occurred for the participants' strongest but not weakest attitudes." (Wegner and Bargh/1998, p.468)


·         "Lepore and Brown (1997) and Fazio et al. (1995) have shown that automatic stereotype activation does not occur for everyone, despite a stereotype's permeation of a culture. Although all individuals appear to possess knowledge of the stereotype, there may be individual differences in whether that stereotype is activated upon activation of the group representation." (Bargh/1999, p.376)


·         "Stereotype activation may be controllable so that either (1) one's goals inhibit stereotype activation or (2) some other construct besides the stereotype may be activated instead, what Allport (1954, p. 20) called a more dominant category being activated (see also Macrae, Bodenhausen, & Milne, 1995)...For example, Bargh and Pietromonaco (1982) primed the trait of hostility, but varied the prime frequency from 0% to 20% to 80% between subjects. Their data suggest that they only found the priming effect for the 80% condition; the category was not activated when only 20% of the stimuli were prime words. Showing that constructs are not always activated by the mere presence of the prime raises the possibility that the 'mere presence' of a stigmatized group member or of a stereotype -relevant trait does not inevitably lead to stereotype activation. Moreover, if people's goals to judge a certain stereotyped group in a fair manner can become chronically held, through recent and frequent application of the goal, there is reason to expect an automatic inhibition of stereotyped responses (see Bargh & Barndollar, 1995). In fact, Moskowitz et al. (1996) found that people who had internalized the goal of being egalitarian, so that it was chronically held, failed to have stereotypes activated. They demonstrated that while non-chronics had stereotypes activated by simply seeing pictures of members of stigmatized groups, people with chronic goals to be nonbiased inhibited stereotype activation." (Gollwitzer and Moskowitz/1996, p.388)


·         "Before proceeding, we want to briefly discuss the role of the subconscious in action. By the "subconscious," we refer to that part of consciousness which is not at a given moment in focal awareness. At any given moment, very little (at most, only about seven disconnected objects) can be held in conscious, focal awareness. Everything else - all of one's prior knowledge and experiences -resides in the subconscious. However, there is a constant interplay between the conscious and the subconscious, with one's perceptions and conscious purposes automatically pulling up or drawing out relevant material…The operation of the subconscious is not directly volitional; it operates automatically, including in emotion. Emotions are the form in which one experiences one's automatized value judgments (-). The subconscious consists not only of stored knowledge and values, but also of acquired mental habits. Thus, people can take actions based on automatic mechanisms (knowledge, motives, values, emotions, habits) without conscious thought. One cannot achieve long-range goals by going solely on "automatic pilot," but one may make specific choices and respond to particular situations without consciously analyzing them. [Locke and Kristof, "Volitional Choices in the Goal Achievement Process", in Gollwitzer and Bargh, The Psychology of Action: Linking Cognition and Motivation to Behavior, Guilford:1996]


·         "…subliminal registration of information is hardly the norm in day-to-day life (see Bargh, 1992) and results in only weak mental activations even then…"  [Bargh and Barndollar/1996, p.461]


·         “The idea of behavior as automatic and cued by perception was first described by James (1890), and recently investigated by Bargh, Chen & Burrows (1996) and Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg (in press). The latter found that priming subjects with a stereotype or trait considerably influenced subsequent complex behavior on a task related to the stereotype or trait. The present experiment is a replication of this, using the stereotypes professor and supermodel to prime intelligent and stupid behaviour respectively, with a manipulation to define the acting component of the stereotype influencing scores on a test of 20 general knowledge questions. The hypothesis was that performance on the general knowledge task would be influenced by the priming condition, but no significant effects were found (unrelated 1-way ANOVA, F=0.69, p=0.60, ns), leading us to question some of the conclusions arrived at by Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg (in press) regarding the relation between perception and behavior.” (Lovbakke et al./ n.d.)


·         “This experiment failed to replicate the results found by Dijkstgerhuis & van Knippenberg (in press) as we found no significant differences between the priming conditions, confirming the null hypothesis: The primes did not affect scores on the test of general knowledge.” (Lovbakke et al./ n.d.)


·         “In our daily lives, however, there is a massive onslaught of information, only very little of which has any behavioural significance, and the question arises: Why are only certain parts of a stereotype activated as behavioural responses?” (Lovbakke et al./ n.d.)


·         “Recent work in social cognition suggests that all incoming information is automatically classified as good versus bad at a preconscious level. This automatic evaluation can lead to affective priming effects. Recently, Bargh, Chaiken, Raymond & Hymes (1996) have observed an affective priming effect using the naming task. In pronouncing target words, pronunciation latencies were shorter when the target was preceded by an evaluatively congruent rather than incongruent prime word...The present four experiments aimed at replicating the affective priming effect in the naming task. Pervasive evidence for affective processing of the prime words was found consistent with the hypothesis of automatic evaluation of perceived stimuli. None of the experiments including an exact replication revealed evidence for the affective priming effect, however, although much larger samples of participants (N=630) were used in the original studies...The results cast doubts on the generality and robustness of the effect.” (Klauer et al./1998)


·         “Murphy & Zajonc (1993) have argued that the affect elicited by primes can be quickly neutralized by subsequent cognitive processing. There is also evidence that the decay of the activation of target-word nodes can be quite rapid.” (Klauer et al./1998)


·         “None of the four experiments yielded an affective priming effect. These failures contrast sharply with the repeated successful demonstrations reported in three experiments by Bargh et. al. (1996), and they are more in line with the mixed results obtained by Hermans (1996).” (Klauer et al./1998)


·         “Nevertheless, the data are consistent with the central tenet of Bargh et. al.'s (1996) theory of automatic, unconditional and in particular goal-independent attitude activation: there were effects of prime evaluation under conditions in which the intention to evaluate was not induced by the task itself. However, the consequences of the attitude activation appear to be less far-reaching, robust, and unconditional than suggested by the original Bargh et al. (1996) studies. In particular, the activated evaluations were not capable in the  present studies of priming the naming of arbitrary other words of the same evaluation.” (Klauer et al./1998)


·         “For example, the motivational perspective outlined herein predicts that passive stereotype control is dependent on the strength of the link between the adopted goal intention and the contextual cue. This focuses attention on the fact that not only the commitment to the goal but the nature of the cue should affect whether the goal is implicitly activated and, in turn, whether the stereotype is activated. As Sara and Schofield noted (1980): ' A category, though accessible, will be elicited only by relevant perceptual events. This raises the possibility that the violent-black stereotype may bias trait attributions to persons who engage in stereotype-relevant behavior without influencing responses to those who do not...A clearly nonaggressing black may not be considered any more aggressive than his or her white counterpart because nothing in his or her behavior brings the violent-black stereotype to mind (p.592)'...Thus, an African American professor might activate one's semantic constructs, such as intellectual, woman, African American, or social awkwardness. This individual might also activate one's goal constructs, such as achievement, egalitarianism, or competitiveness. The strength of the link between the cue and these various constructs would affect what is activated and how the person is categorized. Not all cues should be expected to activate the stereotype, as the link to an alternative representation may be more dominant.”  (Moskowitz et al./1999)


·         “When we observe people (rather than read about them), there does not need to be activation of the stereotype for each of the many groups to which they belong. However, such activation might be hard to avoid when presented with a verbal label explicitly mentioning one of those groups.” (Moskowitz et al./1999)


·         “This difference between impression-goal and no-goal conditions is critical to our hypothesis, because it suggests that the 'default' (represented in the present study by the no-goal condition) is to abstain from forming an impression until given instructions to do so...Our results then are thus quite germane to the issue of whether social judgments are made unintentionally; the results from Experiment 2 suggest that they are not.” (Chartrand and Bargh/1996)



One recent assessment summarized thus:


"In sum, theoretical arguments and accumulating findings suggest that automaticity of stereotype activation is considerably more complex than researchers once thought. This work has made it increasingly clear that there are limits to what was once presumed to be rather inevitable." (Devine and Monteith/1999, p.345)



The November 2001 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology had a special section on the malleability and controllability of automatic processes. The researchers found evidence that agreed with Devine and Monteith's assessment above. Some of the statements were:







One further indication of the complexity of the connection between priming and ethically-related behavior: primes can activate evaluative responses at the same time as semantic constructs, literally reversing the direction of the primed behavior .


In research by Hertel and Fiedler (Hertel, 1998), they found that "In general, priming effects are confined to subjects who lack a consistent, pre-experimental value orientation". Their research indicated:


"However, the explanation of volitional behavior priming is actually even more difficult. There are no a priori reasons to simply take it for granted that the activated competitiveness construct will trigger congruent, rather than opposite behaviors. Depending on the individual's disposition and prior experiences, being reminded of competitiveness may foster withdrawal or cooperative reactions, rather than overt competition (e.g. because competition has been punished in the past)" [p.50]


"The more a subject feels uncertain in a decision situation, the more she or he should be susceptible to priming effects…With this qualification in mind, it can be concluded that when behavioral decisions are at stake, the influence of priming can be described by the joint operation of semantic and evaluative priming. The primed semantic construct specifies the type of behavior, while the construct valence components provide the orientation either to approach or to avoid that behavior." [p.68]




Now, automatic processes are critical to our lives, generally helpful, and as we shall see now, 'fully programmable' -- capable of being controlled at various levels. The interplay between the willful, conscious, control processes and the automatic (previously-conscious) processes is very well known/described in the literature. ALL PARTIES agree that conscious, willful, volitional control processes can operate on automatic processes (and especially on their 'outcomes'). Conscious will can 'reprogram' or 'debug' the subconscious, it can activate competitive automatic processes, and it can simply tell the automatic process to "sit down", overriding its "recommendations" for actions/attitudes/affects. There are conditions required for each of these (e.g., awareness, some type of motivation), and in the absence of conscious attention, many automatic processes will run to completion, and have SOME effect on behavior. But the dominant view today is that these unconscious processes are malleable and that conscious processes (willful, effortful, aware) can 'override' the demands thereof.


Let's look now at several statements about the relation between conscious control and automatic processes (including automatic control):














·         Implicitly activated egalitarian goals allow chronics not merely to prevent stereotypes from being activated but to inhibit the stereotype prior to activation.” (Moskowitz et al./1999)














·         "In a sense, then, control involves constant or repeated vigilance, a kind of self-consciousness or self-knowledge that is wired into the control system…This theory suggests that the adjustments people make in their social behavior arise because self-attention prompts people to reduce discrepancies between their actual behavior and standards of correctness. Noticing that one is not being as helpful as one would like to be (-), for example, or as aggressive as one would hope (-) or as unprejudiced as one would prefer (-), all involve monitoring how discrepant one's behavior is from a control criterion. Experimentally increasing self-focused attention beyond its natural levels enhances control in each of these cases, and this points to the crucial role of the monitoring process in the occurrence of control. (Wegner and Bargh/1998, p.452)




·         "As a rule, consciousness is attracted to action primarily when the action is faulty. This can happen in two ways. When action is strongly expected to be faulty or error-prone, we may direct conscious attention to it all along. Such premeditated monitoring does not accompany all action, but it does seem to happen regularly when we are especially concerned about our ability to control a particular action. The second kind of conscious monitoring occurs when consciousness is drawn to action by the occurrence of unexpected turns or errors in the action. We can refer to these different conscious monitoring processes as deliberate monitoring and event-driven monitoring…Because consciousness is not focused on the action until the error happens, it must be the case that there are unconscious error-monitoring processes that can trust their findings into consciousness." (Wegner and Bargh/1998, p.457)

















Wegner and Bargh categorize the various high-level relations between automatic and control processes [Bargh and Barndollar/1996, p.464f]:


  1. Multitasking: Control and Automatic Processes can run in parallel.
  2. Delegation: A control process can launch an automatic process.
  3. Orienting: An automatic process can launch a control process (e.g. when something 'odd' and out-of-schema occurs during the attempt of the automatic process; or an 'error' condition)
  4. Intrusion: An automatic process can override a control process (e.g., 'ironic' processes, in which the attempt to suppress a thought, under cognitive load, makes it even 'louder'…"Don’t think of elephants!")
  5. Regulation: A control process can override an automatic process.
  6. Automatization: A control process can be transformed into an automatic process.
  7. Disruption: An automatic process can be transformed into a control process (by reflecting on it).



I deemed it necessary to adduce so many quotes, since one of the issues implied in the question is to what extent are these ethically-relevant automatic behaviors controllable or suppressible? If no one can experience primes of hostility, without acting hostilely, then there might be case to be made that free will wasn't possible (in that case). But since some did NOT do so, and since the hostile prime had to be very strong (>80%) to get even those who succumbed to act that way, it would be difficult to conclude that those unconscious primes were irresistible, sovereign, and uncontrollable. Indeed, the above statements by the same researchers that conscious control/volition can (and generally does) control them, should make us very cautious about drawing firm conclusions from such studies, and certainly preclude us from assuming they represent the majority of behavioral life.


One interesting (and controversial in its interpretation) case of interaction is in the early studies of Libet. We already noted above that:


"This analysis should not be read to say that conscious thought plays no part in the voluntary control of action. To the contrary, it is clear that Libet's participants were verbally instructed to move their fingers 'at some time,' and so were already fully conscious of the plan to move in advance of the moment at which the spontaneous intent to move 'now' came to mind. Participants in Libet's experiments were consciously aware in a general sense of what they were going to do in the situation, and were merely waiting for a conscious intention to act to come to mind. In a sense, they had intended to intend. Conscious control, then, may involve considerable influence by prior consciousness (in the form of planning and anticipating when actions should be done), but apparently little influence by immediately-prior conscious intention. Consciousness indicates the direction in which voluntary action is being launched, but the momentary conscious intention does not participate in the actual launching."" (Wegner and Bargh/1998, p.455f)



The Libet study instructed the test subjects to move their finger sometime later in the experiment session, at random, and whenever they decided to do so. When the test subjects eventually DID move their fingers, the researchers noticed that the action motion-potential was activated before conscious awareness 'thought it decided to do it'. In other words, the automatic process apparently made the 'real' decision, initiated the motion, and THEN "convinced consciousness it is was actually THEIR idea to do it"…("great idea, boss--I wish I had thought of that"--wink/wink, nudge/nudge…smile). Some interpreters saw this data as illustrating that the conscious process was 'emergent/epiphenomenal' and only a consequence of the automatic, non-conscious process. [Perhaps it was seen as similar to split-brain experiments in which one side of the brain is instructed to crawl around on the floor (without the other side knowing about the instruction). When asked by the researchers as to "why are you crawling around on the floor?", the "uninformed side" of the brain invents a rationale (e.g. "I dropped my pen and I am looking for it")--totally unrelated to the actual "non-rational" cause.]


But the more I look at the Libet scenario, the more it looks exactly like one of Gollwitzer's "implementation intentions". As a test subject--given those instructions--I would certainly form an intention something like "When the situation seems right--in terms of non-disruption, attention, 'random feeling', etc --I will move my finger."  I would expect automatic processes to constantly be scanning the situation for the right 'mix' of environmental situations (much as we might select the 'right time' to add a comment to a dinner conversation, or multiple-party discussion over drinks). Even the conscious 'notification' that we were now moving our finger seems to me to be possibly related to monitoring processes related to closure and/or  social expectancy. We made a social commitment/goal to 'cooperate with the researcher', and our unconscious monitoring processes will bring to our attention when we might have completed the obligation (and hence, can release the slightly-effortful monitoring function from the closure/coherence task), and I expect these processes would heighten/accelerate 'reminder alerts' to the conscious, if the end of the test was approaching and we had not yet wiggled our finger…In other words, this just looks too much like a very-volitional process--taken as a whole--with the unconscious elements integrated into the pattern as 'normally'.


[As I indicated in the piece on the "soul", I still am somewhat uneasy about how 'sterile' automaticity/priming 'formal' studies can really be…I just still find it difficult to feel completely comfortable with the notion that behavior by test subjects who know they are under scrutiny for some 'results' or something is not massively (a) primed for 'social compliance' [even to the process of guessing what is really going on in the experiments--a not altogether infrequent occurrence in some of these, according to the write-ups--and (b) stimulated to some type of hyper-vigilance to find 'clues' as to what will fulfill experimenter expectations…The tactics to try to reduce/eliminate the unintended priming effects from such 'social estimates of the test' on the part of Bargh et al. are often quite brilliant (IMO), and it is an issue often discussed in the write-ups, but after all, I have been a graduate student myself three times, with professors to please--without appearing sycophantic…(smile). Needless to say, these concerns of mine may be totally off-base, methodologically, since I am not a researcher in this field, but the case of Libet certainly brings these issues up to my 'conscious process'…]







And, just to make sure we understand that these very researchers admit ("freely"…smile) to the dominance/reality of conscious, willful, volitional, intentional, strategic, goal-oriented, and motivated mental activity, let me cite some of their own verbiage using such terms:































The data of experimental  social psychology overwhelmingly supports the ubiquity of conscious, control, volitional processes. Automaticity is actually a result of consistent exercise of such volitional behavior (and volitionally-directed perception).  Even the research methods in automaticity, as well as the classic experiments in social psychology (i.e., Milgram, Asch, Schacter & Singer, Festinger & Carlsmith, Darley & Latane,  and Haney/Banks/Zimbardo) actually highlight the pervasiveness, power, and effectiveness of conscious, deliberate, volitional control.


Some of these experiments are in exceptionally 'constricted' situations, in the attempt to isolate the unconscious from the conscious/control components of action. As such, they have limited real-world relevance to ethical theories and foundations. Wegner and Bargh describe the situations of the classic experiments:


"These classic studies share a focus on what the individual does when he or she has to decide or respond in difficult circumstances, under extreme duress, unusually quickly, or in an otherwise stressful, uncomfortable position. As a rule, people in these powerful situations don't acquit themselves very well, as they succumb to pressures that make them do things ranging from merely uncharitable to frighteningly robotic." (Wegner and Bargh/1998, p447)


These situations would be considered extrema in philosophical ethics, and would generally be classified as acts produced under deception, coercion, manipulation, or even extortion. Such acts are typically not assigned the same culpability as acts done under conditions of normalcy, or freedom, or personal selection.


But even these experiments, and the methodological rigor of priming and automaticity research, highlight the pervasiveness of conscious control. Wegner and Bargh explain this clearly:


"In one sense, these observations suggest that contemporary social psychology is a science of automaticity, not control (Bargh, 1997; Howard & Conway, 1986). The evidence accrued in the classic experiments and their progeny points regularly to situational causes of behavior that participants had no ability or opportunity to control, and that therefore seems irrelevant to the nature of control processes. In another sense, though, this massive scientific effort aimed at the prevention of control processes in the pursuit of forms of automatic behavior suggests that control processes themselves must be profoundly powerful indeed. The entire edifice of social psychological experimental method strains to extinguish the gleam of control in even the most tightly shuttered experimental closet, and still control shines through here and there.


"Control also shines through in the classics. After all, it is not the case that the behaviors people performed in these studies were all done with perfect automaticity. The behaviors were certainly not all performed without any awareness, while at the same time occurring efficiently, unintentionally, and beyond inhibition Rather, one or the other of these aspects of automaticity was created in the experiment for a time, and this disabling of control was enough to allow the experimenters to conclude that the observed behavior was a genuine response to the situation. In all likelihood, people in these studies were quite in control of some behavior in the experiment, just not the one of interest to the experimenter. Participants in a conformity experiment may have been trying desperately not to look silly to the other participants in the room, for example, whereas those in an obedience study may have been working hard consciously to control their emotions as they dealt with the conflicting pressures they were feeling.


"Control processes were evident in the classic experiments when participants accepted instructions on what to do--and then did what they were told. This seems a pedestrian observation indeed, but its apparent subtlety masks its considerable importance. The fact is, people participating in the classic experiments were almost always conscious of an intention, following a plan, putting forth effort in thinking about some aspect of their activity, and inhibiting or controlling certain behaviors. Social psychological research has long depended on the ability of people to do many different things in response to instruction, even though it is only recently that the person's instructed performance has come to be understood as a key focus in the study of control processes (Wegner & Pennebaker, 1993).


"What this means is that control is not absent in the world at large just because researchers are interested in aspects of behavior that are automatic in experiments. Instead, it makes sense to understand human behavior in experiments and elsewhere as consisting of elements of both automaticity and control. As we shall see, the broader part of behavior in social situations is governed by a welter of automatic processes, many of which do end up yielding exactly the kinds of mindless gestures recorded in the classic experiments. Against this backdrop of automaticity, however, there is also an important, powerful thread of conscious control. Psychological processes that are simultaneously open to awareness, intentional, inefficient, and able to be inhibited do exist, and are linked together into the chain of our waking social lives." (Wegner and Bargh/1998, p449)



In other words, it takes extraordinary experimental effort to 'induce' or 'elicit' automatically-produced ethically-relevant behavior, in isolation from control processes…And the "alien" and extreme character of many/most of these situations/efforts would likely eliminate all moral content from such actions. At some level, this is like placing an innocent kid in front of my foot, and then hitting my knee-flex point with the little rubber mallet. I would kick the little kid by reflex (without 'free will'), but would that make that act an 'ethically relevant' one? Definitely not, under normal circumstances.


These are extrema, and are NOT representative of most of lived experience. As the researchers often noted, as soon as consciousness gets involved, the behavior becomes an amalgam of the individual components of the whole person.


And, at a very significant level--and one to which we will return when we get to the biblical data--the established automatic processes represent our history of choices. They COULD represent a moral 'repository' of our past behavior, and hence, they COULD have moral attributes which ARE correlated with our (previously) conscious choices. [Addictive behaviors and chronic dysfunctional habits might be good examples of this. Someone might not have 'control' over a spouse-abusing anger now, but since that behavior might have been the result of many, many conscious choices to abuse someone in the past, it could easily be considered fully culpable today by some.]


One additional intersection between automaticity and responsibility should be noted--that which occurs at the point of awareness. If I am currently a 'slave' to my automatic processes (forgetting for the moment that the creation of the automatic processes was a cumulative sequence of conscious, 'responsible' acts--but which sequence would have had diminishing/decreasing amounts of 'choice' involved in each further act, accompanied by an increasing amount of habituation/automatization), moral responsibility may be on a spectrum of Full-to-None; but when someone makes me AWARE of this phenomena, and implores, exhorts, challenges, or orders me to 'cease and desist', then a higher level of responsibility is now attached. If, for example, someone confronts me with this (e.g., shocking my confederates longer when a weapon is in sight) and I decide to ignore the warning or directive to fix/change it, and therefore I deliberately choose to 'continue in unconscious slavery', there is a definite culpability involved. [The legal system actually recognizes this principle in its 'escalating punishment' approaches to correction.]  If I am temporarily/momentarily woken up from nonconscious behavior-producing processes, and am informed of the ethical-relevance of my 'sleep walking', and then my conscious, volitional, control processes decide to 'go back to sleep--its not that big of a problem', then subsequent automatic behavior DOES have a definite ethical character to it. [There are subtleties here, of course, that make this more complex than I portray here--such as the cognitive issue of how to convince me that the problem is severe enough to warrant correction (a common 'coherence' and 'self defense' problem in racial and gender stereotyping, of course!)--but I mean only to illustrate how an ethical layer could reasonably be placed over unconscious, automatically produced behavior, in certain circumstances. Additionally, there is the huge complication of how the 'moment of awareness' experience would change the automatic process itself. Conceivably, the conscious investment in 'ethically evaluating' the nonconscious process could create changes in its operation. For example, if somebody tells me that every time I rub my face unconsciously I in fact commit a crime against the state of WallaWingaWhatever, and I decide to ignore this since I don’t live in WallaWingaWhatever (nor am I in social contexts where this could be offensive to citizens of WWWhatever),  there is a distinct possibility that every subsequent occasion (over a finite period of time) that I rub my face the unconscious 'error routine' might alert my consciousness that there is a possible 'ethical issue' here. I would re-habituate (i.e., re-silence!) the unconscious process over the next few trials "by ignoring the comment" of course,  but I would actually still be making an ethical decision in each case I decided to ignore the alert.]


The situations in some of these experiments are not reflective of 'free will', but that is because of the deliberate design of the experiment: normal, everyday, regular-life behavioral monitoring and control is 'manipulated away'. Thus, these situations either represent 'fantasy' scenarios, or represent only a partial component of a real-world scenario. They are essential to research this phenomena, but the vast majority of moral decisions will involve deliberative, control elements.


So, although I think the question may be correct in understanding some of these experiments as reflective of a 'coercive' situation (precluding the operation of free will, but not actually 'disproving' such), at the same time I would have to conclude that these artificial, carefully engineered, experimental situations are not remotely representative of the majority of ethical life.


So, given the testimony of the automaticity researchers themselves on the issue of volition (and its multi-faceted relationship to automaticity), I have to conclude that their conclusions about 'free will' would be in disagreement with that embodied in our question/objection. Remember, most ethical theory deals with deliberate decisions, which consider all 'inputs' (including those 'quietly suggested' by automatic process) in making a choice; and the testimony of the researchers cited above agrees that automatic process outputs can be (and in the overwhelming major of cases, are) overridden by conscious control mechanisms.


So, whereas the objection is quite probably correct that some of those situations do NOT involve free will (and hence, no responsibility), it is unwarranted to generalize from these extreme cases to the vast majority of 'relatively free' choices of real life.




Special Case: The case of non-conscious mimicry.


All of the automatic processes we have discussed above deal with the activation of processes constructed by 'frequent and consistent' experience. I did X in the same setting over and over, and it became a 'habit'. I judged someone in a social  out-group as being Y over and over, and it became a 'stereotype'. I evaluated something as being 'bad' over and over, and finally it became an automatic evaluation--without me even having to think about it.


In all these cases, a pattern of consistent (and pre-existent) behavior is presumed. There is no learning of a new behavior here, only the automatization of an 'old' behavior.


But with mimicry, we enter a different situation. In non-conscious mimicry, we 'see' someone else (real or imagined) and we automatically mimic some behavior, trait, or attitude of them (even if these are only expected of them). These 'role models' (for good or ill) exert some type of social influence upon us. They can be an (unconscious) source of new behavior in us.


There are several conscious ways in which this works, but for our purpose here we want to point out the prime non-conscious one: the link between cognitive representation of an action and the performing of that action.


We know that when a person visualizes himself doing some action,  the body begins 'preparing' to do it. The physiological linkage between self-visualization and self-activation is fairly close.


But the same seems to apply to visualizing (or seeing) other people performing the act--this seems to induce a 'readiness' to perform the same act, and in some cases, may even trigger such an act.


Let's look briefly at some statements about this phenomena, since some of the priming examples involve these forces/influences:








Examples of these would include social stereotypes, but (IMO) also trait constructs:








The researchers consider the basal imitative mechanism to be a 'good' one, in spite of it producing bad results when loaded with bad models (e.g., negative stereotypes):





Again, these are unconscious responses. If the subjects are ever allowed to reflect on these patterns, compensatory control mechanisms would likely cut on and counter-expectancy behavior result (e.g., deliberately resisting the urge to 'pat your foot').


Here is a case where an agent is being unconsciously influenced (by processes of nonconscious mimicry) to behavior, some of which would be considered anti-social or ethically wrong. Granted, we have fenced out the control processes in these experiments deliberately, so they would again not be ethically representative.


It might be worth asking just a little question here, though (smile)….How are we to understand this from ethical theory? Who is to 'blame' for this? Oddly enough, it would be the researcher! The presentation of the overwhelming-via-extreme-environment, negative influence (the bad trait, or negative stereotype), and the deception needed to avoid 'manipulation suspicions' was a "free will" choice of the researcher (assuming that 'publish or perish' is not a coercive device itself…academic smile), so responsibility for any 'coerced outcome' would flow to the agent with the most 'control' (most 'degrees of freedom') over the situation…


Seriously, to put mimicry in historical perspective, we should note that mimicry was the basis of moral education in the ancient world. One studied the lives of leaders and mythic heroes, one mimicked their teachers, one 'hung out with' moral/political exemplars. Sometimes you learned ethically good behavior from watching your role-model, teacher,  or hero; other times perhaps you learned bad habits and misanthropic perspectives. The "default" developmental psychology is that  life imitates life--we become like those we admire, spend time with, and/or focus on (much of this is probably via the perception-behavior link).


When we are first starting out in our lives, any 'malicious programming' blame will rest with the teacher, or with those who placed us in front of said teacher.  But we always (or eventually) come to the point where we can dissociate ourselves from those habits (even if only internally). We can reject the 'parent instance' within us. We can decide that the hyper-aggression of that old coach is really counterproductive in today's world. We can decide that John Galt's morning oath is a malignancy. We can decide that our famous CEO's over-zealous work ethic is actually cancerous for families. We can decide that our professor really is being somewhat obscurantist about the new data.  We can decide that the extramarital exploits of the boss are not really laudatory at all--in spite of what the other 'guys' think. And then the moral shoe truly moves to the other foot--ours…We are then tasked with self-review, self-determination, and self-renewal.


But these ethical concerns, issues, and subtleties are foreign to priming/automaticity research into non-conscious mimicry--again--because of the specially-constructed, experimentally-restricted social settings/scenarios they represent.




Pushback: "Well, the statements of these researchers SEEM to demonstrate that they believe in 'real' will, but don't they also make statements seeming to DENY that? How would you understand these, then?


I must confess that some of the statements of Bargh & group DO seem to talk otherwise, but most of these statements seem to be in the discussions for more 'rhetorical' effect than as precise statements of position, like those above. Let's look at a few of these, and notice that even the terminology is sometimes 'odd'--given their stated positions.


·         Our thesis here—that most of a person's everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance—is a difficult one for people to accept.” (Bargh and Chartrand/1999) [I am not sure I understand who would have a problem with this, once the nature of automaticity is explained. The only point of contention I could see in here is that the phrase 'not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices' is somewhat ambiguous. In automaticity theory, remember, these automatic processes are 'stored intentions and choices' from the past, and so a more precise phrase would be 'not by their current conscious intention and current deliberate choice'.  Once people understood that these automatic processes were simply 'habits' they had developed, I don't see that most people would object.]


·         Just as automatic mechanical devices free us from having to attend to and intervene in order for the desired effect to occur, automatic mental processes free one's limited conscious attentional capacity from tasks in which they are no longer needed. Many writers have pointed out how impossible it would be to function effectively in conscious, controlled, and aware mental processing had to deal with every aspect of life...Given one's understandable desire to believe in free-will and self-determination, it may be hard to bear that most of daily life is driven by automatic, nonconscious mental processes—but it appears impossible, from these findings, that conscious control could be up to the job. As Sherlock Holmes was fond of telling Dr. Watson, when one eliminates the impossible, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the truth.” (Bargh and Chartrand/1999) [I can only suppose that this slightly infelicitous statement could easily suggest to someone that the researchers do not believe in volition and self-determination, but the other statements adduced above show exactly the opposite. And, although the language is characteristically "Bargh-oque" in its color and reference to philosophical issues, even the sentences in the immediate context show that he (and Chartrand) is/are again referring only to immediate choice and immediate volition. The contrast in the sentences is between conscious control running ALL processes ("up to the job") versus conscious control running a MINORITY of the processes (= ALL  minus the 'most…driven by automatic…'). This is hardly a question of "free-will and self-determination", and this choice of terms is probably misleading to some. In fact, if one removes that introductory clause, the sentence is much more clear. Of course, Bargh and Wegner (as noted earlier) specifically said that this conscious thread tied all these processes together, and orchestrated them in pursuit of our (chosen) goals. So, perhaps the wording is a little misleading, but the content itself of the passage is still clear and in line with their other statements.]


·         However, an individual's motivations are chronic and enduring over time. And thus, because of the stability over time of one's motivations, in many situations a given individual will frequently and consistently pursue the same goal. If the same goal is pursued within the same situation, then conscious choice eventually drops out of the selection of what goal to pursue—the situational features themselves directly put the goal into operation...According to the above analysis, people should be able to put goals into gear through external means and thereby 'bypass the will' entirely. The goal, once activated, should operate to produce the same effects as if it had been consciously chosen.” (Bargh and Chartrand/1999) [This 'bypass' is, again, only that of immediate conscious choice. Several of the quotes above pointed out that volition can be exercised passively--via these automatic processes--so it is 'immediately current conscious will' which is the reference of this phrase. No problem here either.]


·         “However, the lack of awareness of a process such as stereotype activation does not mean that it cannot be controlled through intent. Despite the fact that the English language vernacular equates intent with conscious and effortful forms of pursuing a desired end state, volition can be exerted preconsciously. A passive process like stereotype activation could be controlled by goal pursuit, which could be activated as passively as stereotype activation.” (Moskowitz et al./1999) [This is a good example of further precision. Moskowitz et al. (including Gollwitzer here) points out that automatic processes can be volitional, since they can be volitionally-created automated goals. The note about the meaning of 'intent' illustrates well how precision in terms is important in these discussions.]


·         These results demonstrate that control over stereotype activation is being exerted by chronics; the failure to use stereotypes cannot be due to an effortful process of correcting or debiasing one's judgments...This would suggest a change in how terms such as intended and deliberate are used in the literature, so that they are not equated with consciousness; one can exert the will in an intentional fashion but without effortful processing. Deliberate and volitional control can be applied preconsciously, exerting effects at the level of categorization and construct activation.”  (Moskowitz et al./1999) [This might be read as a redefinition-into-oblivion of volitional-sounding terms into some unconscious/deterministic model, but it is actually the opposite case--intentionality and deliberation is actually being expanded in their scope and range of effects. Not only do they operate consciously, that is, but they can also leave behind 'automaticity residue' that exerts their influence without requiring a conscious theatre for action. ]


·         This principle in the case of the present experiments leads to the interesting paradox that one's intentions can be activated unintentionally.” (Chartrand and Bargh/1996) [We have already noted the slight semi-ambiguity in this statement. "Unintentionally" often is understood as meaning "against your will", but here it means "without current conscious focus or current act of conscious will"--which would apply to driving, typing, etc. It is worthy to note that they call the automatic processes 'intentions', illustrating again that the auto-procs are 'stored will'.]


·         "The rule of thumb here has been that if a behavior can be attributed to automatic processes, it is more genuine than one that reflects conscious control. We believe that this is because people recognize that strategic editing of one's opinions and beliefs, and shaping of one's behavior towards what others expect and wish to see, require control and do not happen automatically." (Wegner and Bargh/1998, p.465) [This statement actually makes a value-judgment, but does so by defining 'genuine' in a certain way. This is not really problem in itself--definitions are important, obviously--but it is important to note that they are using 'genuine' in contrast to 'actual' (at some level). One might dispute which behavior was the more 'genuine' (as in 'authentic'): the edited, socially-balanced, socially-conscious 'synthesis' of all the inputs, OR the 'reflex-like' automatic behavior. They define 'genuine' specially to mean 'unedited', but 'genuine' could have also been defined in more of an end-product direction. After all, behavior that is overruled by 'social editing' and control measures--and therefore left 'unperformed'--isn't really social action at all, is it? Of course, the researchers know this, and point out that the end-behavior does NOT 'happen automatically'.]


·         "Thus, in principle, there is no reason to believe that the goal "to drive," or, to take a more social example, "to be patient," cannot be removed from conscious control and delegated to the environment. This is the key hypothesis of the auto-motive model of unconscious motivations--that conscious intent or will can be bypassed, that the gap between environment and the autonomous goal can be bridged, making the entire process from start to finish nonconscious." (Bargh and Barndollar/1996, p. 462f) [Just to be clear: the 'entire process' can run from 'start to finish' nonconsciously, but it cannot have been created (as a 'stored' process) nonconsciously--it is a 'summary' or 'template' built through consistent and frequent experience, remember. Also, just a tiny quibble:  the 'goal' itself is not delegated to the environment, but only the activation of the goal is. The environment doesn't perform any action or movement or provide any 'energy' to the process--it is quite passive in the process. As noted in the works by Gollwitzer and Moskowitz, the goal 'sensitizes' the perceiver to notice the stimulus (e.g., the "cocktail party" effect, in which we overhear our name being mentioned but nothing else in a conversation), and then the internal representation of the auto-proc is activated by the perceiver. The environment actually does NOTHING in this process. It is merely the 'setting' that is noticed by the goal-sensitized selective attention of the agent.]


·         "The unconscious mind would thus take over control of behavior in situations in which the individual has chronically pursued the same goal in the past. In effect, over time the individual has delegated control over his or her behavior to the environment (Bargh & Gollwitzer, 1994). The system, in other words, recognizes regularities and eventually subsumes them, so that the conscious mind no longer has to make decisions it always makes the same way anyway...The unconscious can therefore, in principle, be a source of intentions and goals independently from conscious intents and purposes. The unconscious intentions and goals activated by situational features would be the chronic, habitual ones pursued by the individual in that situation, whereas conscious intentions are the momentary, temporary ones that may or may not be the same as the unconsciously activated ones (see Bargh & Gollwitzer, 1994; Gollwitzer, Chapter 13, this volume ...there may be these two independent sources of intentions in any given (frequently experienced) situation ..." (Bargh and Barndollar/1996, p.464f) [Note here, though, that the unconscious is not actually the creator -source of the goals, but rather the repository/recall-source for an automatic version/instantiation of those goals. The automatization process 'pushed' the goals/intentions down into the subconscious, and these goals/intentions originated in the conscious intents and purposes. Any current 'instance' of these goals--as activated--arises from the process, but the origination of the process is due to repeated acts of conscious 'will'.  So, 'source' means 'source of activated intentions and goals', not 'source of novel intentions and goals, without prior conscious creation thereof'.]


[There is one more statement to discuss, but I will save it for the section on the philosophical understanding of 'free will']


So, although a couple of phrases/clauses in these statements might be construed to contradict the more explicit statements of the researchers, there is enough data in the immediate contexts to suggest an interpretation of those phrases/clauses more in line with their fuller and more precise statements elsewhere.



Okay, so where does that leave us?


So, far we have seen that:


  1. These automatic processes are consequences of repeated, frequent, and consistent consciously-caused or consciously-perceived experiences.
  2. They are called 'routinized consciousness', 'preconscious volition', and 'unconscious intentions' by the researchers.
  3. They represent what we would do or how we would act/respond if we were operating in that same environment under conscious control.
  4. They are triggered passively by stimuli in the perceived environment, and they run 'below conscious awareness'.
  5. If they 'run into trouble', they can ask conscious control to 'take over'.
  6. Not all primes activate automatic processes, and not all automatic processes 'dictate' behavior--conscious control is normally involved in producing the actual, 'composite' social behavior.
  7. Not all environmental cues trigger activations, and which processes are activated are determined by a very wide set of variables.
  8. Since these processes are coded for historically frequent/consistent experiences, ALL NOVEL experiences must be dealt with by conscious, volitional means (including significant variations of the settings coded in the auto procs).
  9. Original estimates of these processes as being 'inevitable' have given way to research which is exploring the various limits of these processes.
  10. These processes are created by conscious processes, and can be modified  ('debugged') by conscious processes.
  11. The outcomes of these processes can be inhibited by conscious control or can simply be 'ignored' by it, in the formulation of actual, 'composite' social behavior (as long as consciousness is aware of the 'suggestion' of the activation).
  12. Volition can affect/control these processes in a number of ways, including preconscious suppression of activation.
  13. The vast majority of social behavior is influenced (if not regulated) by the 'thread' of conscious control processes.
  14. In the vast majority of overt battles of conscious vs. unconscious control, conscious control will win (with the exceptional cases of 'ironic' behavior).
  15. Whereas automaticity process are pervasive in our operations, this does not mean that the majority of our ethically-relevant behavior is an automatic consequence of these processes, by any means.
  16. The major researchers in automaticity and automatic goals (e.g., Bargh, Gollwitzer, etc.) have numerous statements recognizing the existence (and predominance) of "volition/will" and its entourage of related words/concepts. There is no real dispute about this.
  17. The extreme efforts required in automaticity research to 'suppress control' is indicative of its profound pervasiveness and power.
  18. Whereas automaticity generally refers to our own 'established behavior', non-conscious mimicry effects often introduce new behaviors/perspectives into ours.
  19. Although mimicry methods are important to our growth, and certainly 'adaptive' (post-primate smile here…), they--like most constructive capability--can be misused. However, behavior in experimental studies cannot be considered to be representative of true ethical decision making.


At this point, I think we could stop here--since the actual data in the research literature essentially answered the question. The published statements of the relevant researchers support the existence of, and majority-control of composite behavior by, what is popularly called 'free will'. ("Responsibility", of course, is a moral and legal category, which the researchers don't investigate. They are focused on the social/psychological consequences of our decisions--not the rightness/wrongness thereof.)


But--just to be complete--we should also look at the dominant Judeo-Christian definition/understanding of 'free will', to make sure that there is not conflict between the above descriptions of volition and these. This will entail (a) a look at philosophical understandings; and then (b) how the biblical data maps to various aspects of automaticity, control, and mimicry.




The Philosophical understanding.


Philosophical and Christian/Theistic theological understandings of 'free will' actually fit nicely with this overall data. Consider four such statements (from 3 different sources):



One: "God's providence involves all of the attributes discussed in the previous section-God's power, knowledge, and goodness. It also depends in important ways on the account that is given of human freedom. There are two very different ways in which free will has been understood. According to the compatibilist conception, a human action is 'free' if the following requirements are met: (1) the immediate cause of the action is a desire, wish, or intention internal to the agent; (2) there is no external event or circumstance that compels the action to be performed; and (3) the agent could have acted differently, if she had chosen to. If these criteria are satisfied, the action comes, as we might say, 'from within'; it cannot rightly be said that the agent is forced to perform it. This is 'compatibilist' free will, because it holds that free will is compatible with deterministic causation so long as the three conditions given are satisfied…A good many philosophers and theologians are not satisfied with this way of understanding free will, because they do not think this sort of freedom is sufficient to make humans morally responsible for their actions. These philosophers and theologians insist, on the contrary, that in order for an action to be truly free, it must have been really possible, with all the antecedent conditions remaining exactly the same, for the agent to have chosen differently. One philosopher has expressed this libertarian view of free will by saying that, when a person is free with respect to performing an action, she 'has it in her power to choose to perform A or choose not to perform A. Both A and not A could actually occur; which will actually occur has not yet been determined.'" [Reason & Religious Belief, 2nd Ed, Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, Basinger, p.75]





·         From this definition, both compatiblist and non-compatibilist ("incompatibilist") views are consistent with automaticity. For the compatibilist, we can note that all three conditions are met. (1) Although the trigger might be the external stimulus, the actual immediate 'cause' would be the automatic (internal) process and/or activated goal. Since this is internal to the agent (including, actually, the perception of the stimulus) this condition is met. (2) No external event compels the behavior--it merely activates the process. The process might attempt to assert its results, but conscious control mechanisms can generally override it. This condition is thus met. (3) This is fairly obvious from conscious control. Given a real-world situation (instead of the extremely contrived research experiment conditions), a change of goal or motive would have determined a change of behavior. Condition three is met.


·         For the incompatibilist, the well-documented ability of conscious control to inhibit or suppress behavior would satisfy this position, and the obvious fact that researchers NEVER get 100% of the non-control group to act in support of the hypothesis (smile), certainly suggests a sort of 'openness' in the system (Explanations of this openness within experimental psychology are often given in those quasi-mystical terms 'individual differences', but this offers no real explanatory improvement over 'free will' anyway.)





Two: "In contrast with determinism, the view of those who affirm free will is libertarianism, defined as the view that some human actions are chosen and performed by the agent without there being any sufficient condition or cause of the action prior to the action itself. Notice that the definition claims that free actions have no sufficient cause, not that they lack causes and conditions altogether. If you offer to sell me your old car, and I decide to accept, then your making the offer is certainly a condition of my accepting it, and it may qualify as a partial cause of my acceptance. But it is not a sufficient cause, because it does not necessitate my acceptance. Even after you had offered, with all the other circumstances exactly as they were, it was still entirely within my power either to accept your offer or to reject it. Notice also that the definition does not claim that all human actions are free in this sense, but only that some are. It is quite possible for the libertarian to admit that in some cases (for instance, those in which there is overwhelmingly strong motivation pushing a person in one direction only) no action is possible other than the one which was actually taken. The determinist, on the other hand, claims that all actions are determined." [Metaphysics: Constructing a World View, William Hasker, p. 32f]




·         The first thing to note is that this definition would still be appropriate even if the objection still stood. Since this definition only requires some actions to be 'free' and since all researchers agree that some actions are not controlled by automatic processes, then this philosophical definition of free will would still hold. Notice also that this definition includes recognition of the reality of "overwhelming motivation pushing a person in one direction only"--something close to automaticity effects when all other conscious control elements are experimentally precluded.


·         Secondly, this definition/description is a fairly close approximation to the "composite" view of social action. All inputs from auto-procs, mimicry effects, conscious deliberation, and risk-assessments are allowed in this view as "partial causes".


·         Third, and this is somewhat incidental to our issue, this statement illustrates that the positivist view of Dennett on the will is based on a false dichotomy. Dennett is cited somewhat favorably by Wegner and Baugh (although his 'intentional opposite'--Searle--is cited favorably by Bargh/Barndollar):


"And even if the ghost could have an influence on the machine, Dennett (1984) has observed that this hardly provides a kind of free will worth wanting. A controller whose primary activity in life is doing things that are not caused by prior events seems no more than a capricious imp one would not trust with a water balloon." (Wegner and Bargh/1998, p.450)


For Dennett--who assumes mechanism as the underlying reality--behavior is either irresistibly determined or 100% random and 'detached from reality'. Its either absolute necessity, or absolute nihilism---there is no middle ground. But, as the car-sale example above illustrates, many (if not most) personal decisions have many partial causes (influences), but these need not be sufficient causes at all. [In addition to this car-procurement example, consider the example I give in the Vortex under 'the Category of the Personal'.] There are too many discrepancies between Dennett's position and the research data in social psychology (especially in infant cognition) to use his views as a support for a lower-view of freedom.


[Indeed, in a book co-edited by Bargh, one contributor points out a problem with one of Dennett's key positions, relevant to psychological studies of intentions/goals:


"We humans seem geared from the start to deal with each others' intentions, at least to be enormously sensitive to them in their various guises. Positivist philosophers, like Dan Dennett (1991) may be embarrassed by human intentionality, deep-freezing them as an 'intentional stance,' but 18-month-olds are not the least so. I refer again to a Meltzoff (1995) finding. Infants imitate the intended behavior of an Other and not its surface properties. In brief, if the outcome of an adult's act is thwarted, infants of 18 months will imitate it  as if it had been carried through right to its goal. Human infants do easily and naturally (and to the delight of their caregivers) what Kanzi (the bonobo) does stumblingly, and only if he has the luck of being raised by that gang of very human and dedicated graduate students and post-docs at Georgia State." [italics his. Jerome Bruner, "Human Infancy and the Beginnings of Human Competence", in Unraveling the Complexities of Social Life: A Festscrift in Honor of Robert B. Zajonc, John Bargh and Deborah Apsley (eds), Amer Psych Asso:2001, p.137.]




Three: "The most widely recognized source of interest in free will is concern for the appropriate assignment of moral responsibility. Many of our reactions to the behavior of ourselves and others are governed by a concern for whether or not that behavior was free. Thus, when you smash your grocery cart into mine, I react with anger and indignation, until I discover that you were pushed. When I have betrayed a friend by revealing a delicate secret, I feel remorse if I view the revelation as my own free act. But if I divulged the secret under torture or force, then the attitude I take toward myself is one more of pity than contempt. Furthermore, underlying our assumption of the appropriateness of such patterns of intra- and interpersonal attitude adoption is the belief that persons are the appropriate subjects of such attitudes only when they are morally responsible for what they do; and they are morally responsible for what they do only when they commit their acts of their own free will." [Free Will: A Philosophical Study, Laura Waddell Ekstrom, p. 7]


Notes: This simply shows that the delineation of ethically-relevant behavior varies with the levels of freedom involved. It supports the general position in the objection--that responsibility presupposes adequate freedom within choices.



Four: "Let us say that an agent has free will only if some of the actions she performs during her lifetime are such that she can do (or could have done) otherwise with respect to them. I will call the minimal supposition of human free will the thesis that, for some human person, this necessary condition--the ability at some time to act otherwise--is met. Thus if no human person can ever do otherwise than act precisely as he or she does act, then the minimal supposition of human free will is false. The minimal supposition requires that at least on occasion what some human person can do is not exhausted by what she does do."  [Free Will: A Philosophical Study, Laura Waddell Ekstrom, p. 22f]


Note: This philosophical description of free will also allows for "non-free", automatically-controlled behavior. Since it, like the earlier description, only requires SOME acts to be free, the data of automaticity is certainly compatible with it.



Granted, this is a very brief overview of the traditional understanding of free will, but at least it is not the folk version per se. These statements are more precise and more careful descriptions, from philosophical writings. None of the versions described above (compatibilist, incompatibilist) are in conflict with the data from automaticity/priming/goal research above, nor are they actually in conflict with the position taken in the objection (something like: "free will cannot exist, if automatic processes can produce some cases of  'undesired' behavior").





The Biblical Data.


Does the bible contain a practical anthropology that 'recognizes' automaticity? Does it assume that conscious processes do the 'bulk' of the work? Do its method of personal transformation 'make sense', given automaticity? How effective might its methods be, in dealing with aberrant behavior which does/could result from un-monitored automatic processes? How does mimicry processes map to biblical moral instruction and/or development?


The daily reality of negative racial, gender, age, and religious stereotypes (in the psychological automaticity sense) is a major research area in social psychology and in cognitive psychology. How do the biblical injunctions and pastoral approaches to dealing with such pernicious (and pervasive and powerful) forces match up with the data surfacing in psychological research?


The problem with automatic stereotypes is a MAJOR one in our culture today, and one without satisfactory answers--if you look at the history of the past 30 years. Unconsciously activated stereotypes are some of the most 'stubborn' elements of modern existence, and the biblical approaches to moral development are, oddly enough, in significant synch with modern research results.


This data will be discussed in Part Two (ntprime.html)--since I have talked too long already and am now out of breath…! See you there…(smile)…




Works references in the (combined) article:



Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, Corrine I. Voils, and Margo J. Monteith, "Implicit Associations as the Seeds of Intergroup Bias: How Easily Do They Take Root?", in Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology,  November 2001, Volume 81, Number 5.


Bargh, John. "The Cognitive Monster: The Case against the controllability of automatic stereotype effects",  in Dual Process Theories in Social Psychology. S. Chaiken and Y. Trope (eds). Guilford:1999.


Bargh and K. Barndollar, "Automaticity in Action: The Unconscious as Repository of Chronic Goals and Motives", in Gollwitzer and Bargh, The Psychology of Action: Linking Cognition and Motivation to Behavior, Guilford:1996


Bargh and Chartrand. "The Unbearable Automaticity of Being". American Psychologist July 1999 Vol. 54, No. 7, 462-479).


Bargh and Chartrand. "The Mind in the Middle: A Practical Guide to Priming and Automaticity Research", in Handbook of Research Methods in Social Psychology, H. Reis and C. Judd (eds), Cambridge:2000, pp. 253-285.


Irene V. Blair, Jennifer E. Ma, and Alison P. Lenton,  "Imagining Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes Through Mental Imagery" in Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology,  November 2001, Volume 81, Number 5.


Tanya L. Chartrand and John Bargh. "Automatic Activation of Impression Formation and Memorization Goals: Nonconscious Goal Priming Reproduces Effects of Explicit Task Instructions."  JNL of Personality and Social Psychology (1996). Vol. 71. No. 3. 464-478.


Dasgupta, Nilanjana  and Greenwald, Anthony G.  "On the Malleability of Automatic Attitudes: Combating Automatic Prejudice With Images of Admired and Disliked Individuals" in Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology,  November 2001, Volume 81, Number 5.


Patricia Devine and Margo Monteith. "Automaticity and Control in Stereotyping",  in Dual Process Theories in Social Psychology. S. Chaiken and Y. Trope (eds). Guilford:1999.


Peter M. Gollwitzer. "Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans".  July 1999. American Psychologist. Vol.54, No. 7, 493-503.


Peter Gollwitzer and Gordon Moskowitz. "Goal Effects on Action and Cognition", in Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles. E. Higgins and A. Kruglanski (eds). GuilfordPress:1996.


Hertel, Guido and Klaus Fiedler, "Fair and dependent versus egoistic and free: effects of semantic and evaluative priming on the 'Ring Measure of Social Values'", European Journal of Social Psychology 28 (1998), pp49-70.


Kihlstrom, John. Class lectures/syllabus, UC Berkeley, Sprint term 1999, Course: Scientific Approaches to Consciousness, at


Karl Christoph Klauer and Jochen Musch (Psychological Institute, University of Bonn). "Evidence for no affective priming in the naming task". Extended version of a poster presented to the 10th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Society. May 23rd, 1998.  At


Locke and Kristof, "Volitional Choices in the Goal Achievement Process", in Gollwitzer and Bargh, The Psychology of Action: Linking Cognition and Motivation to Behavior, Guilford:1996


Jorgen Lovbakke, Kyle A. Lang, Rachael K.E. Powell, and Alexander K.O. Robertson. "The Automaticity of Behavior: Does Activation of a Stereotype Affect Performance on a General Knowledge Task?"  (Dept of Psychology, University of St. Andrews). At


Brian S. Lowery, Curtis D. Hardin, and Stacey Sinclai,  "Social Influence Effects on Automatic Racial Prejudice" in Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology,  November 2001, Volume 81, Number 5.


Gordon Moskowitz, Peter Gollwitzer, Wolfgang Wasel and Bernd Schaal. "Preconscious Control of Stereotype Activation Through Chronic Egalitarian Goals."  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 77, No.1 , 167-184 (1999).


Laurie A. Rudman, Richard D. Ashmore, and Melvin L. Gary, "Unlearning Automatic Biases: The Malleability of Implicit Prejudice and Stereotypes" in Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology,  November 2001, Volume 81, Number 5.


Joseph Tzelgov.  "Automaticity and Processing without Awareness." Psyche, 5(3), April 1999. Available at


Daniel M. Wegner and John A. Bargh. "Control and Automaticity in Social Life", in Handbook of Social Psychology (4/e). D. Gilbert, S. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (eds). McGraw-Hill:1998.


Bernd Wittenbrink, Charles M. Judd, and Bernadette Park, "Spontaneous Prejudice in Context: Variability in Automatically Activated Attitudes" in Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology,  November 2001, Volume 81, Number 5.

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