Tuesday, January 25, 2005

More on the cognitive unconscious

Todd Zywicki responds further to the critics of his criticism of the Implicit Association Test. When it was suggested that he dislikes the IAT because of an unconscious bias agasint the idea that he has unconscious biases, he replied:
And if it is the case that our views on the usefulness of Project Implicit are little more than a reflection of our subconscious, wouldn't it be pointless to have a conversation trying to persuade me to use my conscious mind to revise my supposed subconsciously-biased negative opinion of Project Implicit itself?
One suspects that political propagandists throughout the ages have come to the same conclusion.

On a less flippant note, Chris of Mixing Memory responds to Todd better (and more, ah, bluntly) than I could, at the bottom of his original post on this topic. Main points: even if most mental processes aren't accessible to consciousness, that doesn't mean they can't be influenced by conscious processes - for example, arguments using empirical evidence and reason about the nature of the cognitive unconscious. It just means that the translation from conscious perception to belief is pretty complex and is mediated by lots of mental processes that we aren't aware of, that exert their own influence on the end result. In any case, the cognitive unconscious can be pretty sensible, even rational. So the cognitive unconscious need not lead us to rush into a nihilist epistemology.

Note: This is a follow-up to this previous post about the cognitive unconscious.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Actually, to respond to your previous post, you can and should dismiss certain ideologies/theories out of hand. You are shifting the burden here to those who expect inferences to be supported by evidence. Those who wish to foist a theory/ideology into our belief system bear the burden of establishing their theory. The burden does not rightly fall on those who would rather not adopt the ideology in question to provide an alternative. (Although, provision of an alternative is not a bad idea.) No clearly, with respect to certain scientific theories, many of them can not be proven in an absolute sense, but, nonetheless, they can and should be supported. To take your Marxist history example, obviously, the burden should lay with the person advocating this radical theory to establish the theory, rather than with the opponents. (Indeed, rather than being designed to be proven, such hypothesis are designed to be falsifiable.)

In general, you seem to me to be somewhat off-track with respect to your comments. Subconscious beliefs and the level of influence they exert is obviously not directly observable and indeed it is difficult to falsify inferences concerning the extent of their influence (assuming such beliefs exists). But in general, given there are a whole range of possibilities, from no influence to huge influence, it seems that an individual advocating any particular possibility definitely should have the burden of establishing any particular magnitude they are advocating. This is especially so when the theory is non-intuitive. While lack of intuitive appeal obviously does not disqualify a scientific theory, it does shift the burden to the theories advocates ever so slightly. To take the theory of inertia for example, the advocates of that theory were able to meet the burden of providing enough support. While some reasonably well established scientific theories are non-intuitive, many others are intuitive. Im not sure that you pointing to a few that you assert are non-intuitive shows anything in particular. (Anyway, Im not sure I agree with you that intuitively we would expect an object to require force to keep on moving. Although, the reason this may seem counter-intuitive, is because in the real world, which does not exist in a vacuum, objects in fact do require force to keep on moving due to friction. But where would our intuitions lead us with respect to movement within a fictional frictionless world?)

Think about the implications of your worldview for a moment. It seems that to disbelieve a theory, you must establish an alternative. So, take Freud's counterintuitive theory (and no unaccepted) and radical views concerning sexuality. According to your view, it seems we must adopt this view unless we prove an alternative. But the problem with Freud's view is that it really is not falsifiable and therefore difficult to disestablish (or establish for that matter, since falsifiability is the key to both). Here is a problem. I can come up with N conflicting non-falsifiable theories concerning psychology. Are you saying that I must adopt all of them unless I establish an alternative? Clearly, that is unsound. Thus, the burden of establishment must lie at the feet of an advocate for any particular theory.

Moving to the topic of the role of the subconscious, the problem with this theory lies in it's non-falsifiability in general. (Although perhaps one could come up with discrete hypothesis relating to the subconscious which are falsifiable.) Given this, one is right to quite skeptical of the non-serious research of those who advocate the Implicit Association Test. 

Posted by David Welker

1/25/2005 04:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for your comment! I'll respond more fully later, but for now let me just say that it's simply not true that "Subconscious beliefs and the level of influence they exert is obviously not directly observable." They are no less observable than any of the rest of the mind. The whole point of cognitive science is that you can infer some of the invisible structures of the mind from the behavior that it produces. So you can't directly observe my theories about the cognitive unconscious, but you can infer what I believe from what I am writing. Similarly, you can observe the influence that subconscious beliefs have on behavior. To provide just one example: if you give people a list of fictional people to read, and then later give them a different list where you ask them to judge whether each name is 'famous' or 'not famous,' they'll be more likely to say a name is 'famous' if it was on the previous list. This is called the 'false fame' effect - the subject feels familiarity at seeing the name again, but misattributes it to fame rather than to having seen the name 5 minutes ago. BUT: subjects are more likely to show the 'false fame' effect with male names than with female names, indicating a subconscious belief that men are more likely to be famous than women. See here for further discussion.

The idea that conscious beliefs are somehow "more observable" than unconscious beliefs is ridiculous. You can't observe anyone's mind, only their behavior. Whether or not the mental processes that best explain their behavior are actually available to the subject's awareness is irrelevant.

I suspect that you are confusing Freud's idea of the subconscious, which really was un-falsifiable (especially the idea of denial), and more recent research into the vast amount of mental processes that go on without your awareness.

Some weirdly compelling evidence for the latter has come from dissociations between conscious and unconscious processes in people with brain damage, for example: 'blindsight,' where people with damage in the visual cortex can't consciously see anything but can guess correctly whether light is on the right or left side of their visual field; the dissociation between explicit conscious memory and implicit memory (for example in the patient H.M., who like the character in 'Memento' could not form new explicit memories, yet could learn new motor skills); patients with 'neglect syndrome' where they aren't aware of the left half of their visual field, yet can still react unconsciously to it; and so on.

More on this topic to come. 

Posted by Andrew

1/25/2005 09:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, some more response. On inertia: in fact, inertia is highly unintuitive. For example, there have been studies of "intuitive physics" where subjects are asked what will happen if, for example, a ball is moving circularly in an outwardly spiraling tube, and then exits the tube. Even physics majors will often say that the ball will continue moving circularly, even though Newton's First Law dictates that the ball will move in a straight line.

Where does our intuition and common sense come from anyway? We evolved and grew up in a world where friction exists, and so we have an intuitive expectation that you always need force to keep something moving. Since our immediate surroundings have a factor that obscures the laws of physics, our intuitions don't match the laws of physics. (Similarly, our intuition is that the earth looks flat. That's just because we're not tall enough to see the curvature of the earth. Or, our intuition is that objects have definite location and speed. That's because we're not small enough to see quantum effects in everyday life. And so on.) 

Posted by Andrew

1/25/2005 08:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally: I may have expressed myself poorly in saying that you need to have good reasons before rejecting a theory. As you say, David, that's not true - for example, I don't necessarily have any positive reasons for not believing in God - I just haven't found any convincing reasons to believe in God.

What I suppose I meant to say is that if there is rigorous evidence being presented for a given theory, you should examine and confront that evidence before rejecting the theory. In the case of the cognitive unconscious, there are decades of research by cognitive psychologists and hundreds (if not thousands) of experiments backing up that theory. To dismiss it out of hand - even (or, indeed, especially) if such dismissal is based on "common sense" - would be just uninformed assertion. 

Posted by Andrew

1/25/2005 10:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Intuition is not inherent - it's based on experience. Any child who's ever swung something on a string around his head and then let it go would get your "intuitive physics" question correct. Those who have not, may not.

For you, who seems to be aware of hundreds (if not thousands) of experiments backing up this theory, it's intuitive. For the "rest of us", it has a high bar to clear. Classical philosophy, which is all most undergradutes get (got? - it's been a while), is based almost entirely on conscious introspection. There's a lot of history to overcome when proposing that that's all bunk.

Just as the burden of proof is on physicists to prove their non-intuitive theories (stand on a scale in an elevator and gravity-as-acceleration is pretty obvious), the burden of proof is on those who are proposing that Descartes' invisible demon is inside our head. 

Posted by mrsizer

1/28/2005 04:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mrsizer - Sure, psychologists should meet the burden of proof on the cognitive unconscious. What I am saying is that they have met the burden of proof, at least to a very large extent. Just because one is not aware of the thousands of experiments supporting the model of the cognitive unconscious doesn't mean that one is justified in dismissing the theory out of hand.

As for the nature of intuition: I am reluctant to wade into the unhelpful nature v. nurture debate, especially the morass over evolutionary psychology, but I think there have been some studies about intuitions that show up in very young children that are hard to explain by experience. For example, if you show a picture of a cat to children and tell them that it used to be a skunk, but had all its organs and skin replaced with those of a cat, they will say that it is "still" a skunk even though it's physically indistinguishable from a cat. There's an essentialist intuition about biology, that life forms have "essences" that are unchangeable. (This may partially explain much intellectual resistance to Darwinism.) Similarly, children also attribute intentions to moving objects, like a triangle that seems to be chasing a square in an animation (eg, the square "wants" to get away from the triangle). This is a "theory of mind" intuition that underlies social interaction and seems to be lacking in autism. (As Hume noted, this may partially explain why people think natural disasters are punishment by angry gods.)

Finally, your last sentence - "Descartes' invisible demon is inside our head"? If you're referring to Descartes' theory of mind-body dualism, actually most cognitive psychologists would reject that idea in favor of monism/materialism. 

Posted by Andrew

2/03/2005 11:18:00 PM  
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