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The adaptive unconscious is a set of mental processes influencing judgment and decision making, in a way that is inaccessible to introspective awareness. This conception of the unconscious mind has emerged in cognitive psychology, influenced by, but different from, other conceptions such as Sigmund Freud's.

The adaptive unconscious is distinguished from conscious processing in a number of ways, including being faster, effortless, more focused on the present, and less flexible.

In other theories of the mind, the unconscious is limited to "low-level" activity, such as carrying out goals which have been decided consciously. In contrast, the adaptive unconscious is thought to be involved in "high-level" cognition such as goal-setting as well.

According to Freud, the unconscious mind stored a lot of mental content which needs to be repressed. The term adaptive unconscious reflects the idea that much of what the unconscious does is beneficial to the organism; that its various processes have been streamlined by evolution to quickly evaluate and respond to patterns in an organism's environment.[1]

Introspection illusionEdit

Main article: Introspection illusion

Although research suggests that much of our preferences, attitudes and ideas come from the adaptive unconscious, subjects themselves do not realise this: they are "unaware of their own unawareness".[2] They give verbal explanations of their own mental processes - for example why they chose one thing rather than another - as if they could directly introspect the causes of their ideas and choices. In some experiments, subjects provide explanations that are clearly confabulated, suggesting that introspection is instead an indirect, unreliable process of inference.[3] It has been argued that this "introspection illusion" underlies a number of perceived differences between the self and other people, because people trust these unreliable introspections when forming attitudes about themselves but not about others.[4][5][6] However, this theory of the limits of introspection has been highly controversial, and it has been difficult to test unambiguously how much information individuals get from introspection.[7]

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit


  1. Wilson, Timothy D. (2003). "Knowing When to Ask: Introspection and the Adaptive Unconscious" Anthony Jack, Andreas Roepstorff Trusting the subject?: the use of introspective evidence in cognitive science, 131–140, Imprint Academic.
  2. Wilson, Timothy D., Yoav Bar-Anan (August 22, 2008). The Unseen Mind. Science 321 (5892): 1046–1047.
  3. Nisbett, Richard E., Timothy D. Wilson (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 8: 231–259., reprinted in (2005) David Lewis Hamilton Social cognition: key readings, Psychology Press.
  4. Pronin, Emily, Matthew B. Kugler (July 2007). Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43 (4): 565–578.
  5. Pronin, Emily (January 2007). Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11 (1): 37–43.
  6. Pronin, Emily, Jonah Berger, Sarah Molouki (2007). Alone in a Crowd of Sheep: Asymmetric Perceptions of Conformity and Their Roots in an Introspection Illusion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92 (4): 585–595.
  7. White, Peter A. (1988). Knowing more about what we can tell: 'Introspective access' and causal report accuracy 10 years later. British Journal of Psychology 79 (1): 13–45.


  • Wilson, Timothy D. (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Bargh, John A., Ezequiel Morsella (2008). The Unconscious Mind. Perspectives in Psychological Science 3 (1): 73–79.
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