Unconscious Stimuli and Cognitive Control in Psychology


Psychologists explain that the human brain is divided into conscious and subconscious minds. The conscious mind often determines what we do intentionally but the subconscious mind determines what we do without thinking. For example, some of the common subconscious actions we do include breathing and talking. Often, most of the things we do require utmost attention and skill (such as driving a car, riding a bicycle, or swimming); however, after we have mastered these skills, we comfortably engage in such activities unconsciously. As we try to understand our conscious and subconscious actions, it is important to comprehend the scientific distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness. Cherry (2012) explains that,

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“The conscious mind includes everything that we are aware of. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about rationally and the unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness” (p. 3).

For many years, researchers have tried to study the role of consciousness viz-a-viz the limitations of the subconscious mind (Norris and Kinoshita 2008). So far, researchers have suggested that consciousness is affiliated with executive control and executive control is mainly initiated by the conscious mind. However, other researchers have observed that executive control can also be initiated by unconscious stimuli (Merikle, Joordens, and Stolz 1995). Many conflict adaptation studies have extensively used literature from the study of the conscious mind as a precursor to understanding executive control. This paper seeks to undertake an analysis of conflict adaptation researches that includes the influence of the conscious and subconscious mind. Subliminal priming will be included in this analysis to explain the differences between conscious information processing and unconscious information processing. Several questions will also be answered, including how far the brain can go when perceiving information unconsciously; the extent that the brain can establish a strategy, and the limitations for strategy establishment. This analysis will be done sequentially.

Cognitive Control

Several researchers have strived to draw the link between cognitive control and the conscious mind. Researchers who have investigated conflict adaptation have affirmed that reducing the occurrence of conflicting information in initial studies significantly reduces the probability of experiencing conflict in subsequent studies (Kunde, Reuss, and Kiesel, 2012). In other words, reducing the impact of conflicting information is supposed to reduce the probability of experiencing conflict. Desender and Van-den-Bussche (2012) explain the relation between conflict adaptation and the conscious mind when they said that, “conflict adaptation can only occur when conflicting information is consciously perceived” (p. 4). Therefore, it is proposed that we are bound to exercise cognitive control when we consciously comprehend the consequences and reasons for our actions (this thought process happens in our conscious minds) (Lau 2009).

Unconscious Semantic Activation

Many researchers have used the priming paradigm to comprehend how unconscious processing occurs. “In most of these researches, there was a known target that was preceded by an irrelevant prime. In the same studies, it was affirmed that the responses to the prime were more effective if the prime had the same response as the target” (Desender and Van-den-Bussche, 2012, p. 5). Therefore, a prime, which had a different response from the target, registered a slower response rate. This observation has been witnessed in occasions where the prime is masked and when it is open. Masked primes were previously misunderstood to be applicable in situations where there were automatic primes only. Many authors have reported on studies that depict the above observations; for instance, borrowing from research studies done by Eimer and Schlaghecken (1998) and Dehaene (1998), it is reported that,

“a prime arrow, which is displayed for only 16ms, is capable of activating motor responses while a subliminally presented prime number facilitates responses to a target number when they share a semantic relation (suggesting that unconscious stimuli can be processed up to a semantic level)” (p. 5).

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The above statement had not been initially received well (by many researchers) but subsequent studies (touching on subliminal prime) have proved that the above ideology is true because subliminal prime has the potential of affecting the outcome of its target. Subsequent meta-analyses done on the same research problem have further affirmed that even when non-semantic influences are factored into an experiment, priming outcomes may be experienced, owing to subliminal primes (Schlaghecken 1998). Therefore, high subliminal primes are bound to result in high processing levels (implying that unconscious mind influences can result in strong cognitive actions). Following the effect of subliminal prime outcomes on processing levels, Dehaene (1998) affirms that “we assume that these masked priming effects are the consequence of conflict at the response level” (p. 5).

Unconscious Processing and Top-down Influences

Keifer (2007) proposes that automatic processes often occur without the effect of top-down influences. This analysis is considered relevant for the understanding of how automatic processes occur, However, Dehaene (1998) already observed that cognitive processes usually have to occur when the cognitive system is reconfigured to allow for automatic processing. Instead of this observation, Keifer (2007) proposes the introduction of the gating framework to explain top-down influences. The study of top-down influences is done with the inclusion of top-down factors such as attention and intention. The study of automatic processing is hereby also analyzed within the context of masked responses or semantic priming. Through this analysis, Keifer (2007) observes that task representations, which occur in the prefrontal cortex, modulate neuron activity. This modulation often occurs in the visual and semantic association cortex such that the modulated effects, which occur because of unconscious responses, are easily visible through the processing of automatic responses.

Some studies have affirmed Keifer’s introduction of the gating framework in the understanding of automatic processing through the top-down approach. For example, studies centered on understanding behavior and electrophysiological activities confirm that effects characterized by masked priming depend on three factors: the first factor is the temporal attention on masked priming; the second factor is intended actions and the third factor is the activity set right before the occurrence of masked priming (Keifer 2007). These three factors were derived in studies where masked response and semantic priming were included. For example, masked semantic priming was evident when an introduction to the semantic priming word was required (before semantic tasks were carried out) (Keifer 2007, p. 1). However, when an introduction to the perceptual word features was needed, masked semantic priming was absent. These studies showed that automatic processes are often determined by top-down influences. The inclusion of a gating framework to process conscious and unconscious stimuli is also orchestrated here.

Limitations of Unconscious Processing

Priming has been extensively used in the study of unconscious and conscious processes. Its use has further been explicitly used in the study of automatic processing. However, different limitations have inhibited the effectiveness of priming. One such limitation is visibility. The basic assumption in this analysis is that unmasked priming often results in faster responses and faster reaction times. On the contrary, masked priming results in slower responses and slower reaction times. Repetition and semantic priming which occurs in the context of unmasked priming is therefore likely to result in fewer errors (Keifer 2007).

The basic limitations for unconscious processing are therefore realized when visibility to an initial stimulant is too short-lived such that it may be difficult to realize impressive results (Desender, K & Van-den-Bussche 2012). For example, in an experiment where a respondent is shown part of a sketch for a very short time, such that, the respondent is almost not aware of the stimuli, it may be very difficult to realize effective priming because the sketch did not last long enough for the respondent to unconsciously process it. However, the opposite may be true if the respondent is shown the sketch for a long time, such that, he can unconsciously process the sketch. In the latter case, it would be easier for the respondent to identify the sketch. Therefore, if the respondent is shown different parts of the sketch (sufficiently), it may be easy for the respondent to recognize the sketch if the process is repeated.

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Similarly, in an experiment where a respondent is shown different parts of a word, long enough to engage his implicit memory, higher levels of priming success may be realized. For instance, if a respondent is shown three letters “v-eh” of the word “vehicle” (long enough to stimulate his implicit memory); it would be very easy for the respondent to recognize the full word when the process is repeated. Therefore, visibility is a strong limitation of priming (especially when masks are too short) (Holender 1986).

Another limitation to priming is the adoption of ineffective tests, which cannot ascertain the true effect of priming. Some priming tests have been known to have low efficacy and therefore, they may lead to misleading results of the same. Tests, which are seen to have a low efficacy level, are known to have some inconsistencies in their methodologies. For example, some tests may fail to be carried out at the right time, such that, undesirable results may be realized. For example, in a study to determine the effectiveness of priming on students suffering from autism, it was suggested that priming ought to be done at the end of the day (Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism 2011). Undertaking this study at the beginning of the day was perceived to be a wrong move because it would be too soon to establish if the students had indeed conceptualized the priming process.

Similarly, some priming processes are undertaken under the wrong leadership. For example (sticking with the autism experiment), undertaking a prime test with someone who is not familiar with the students may not produce the same results as when the process is done with someone the students are familiar with (Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism 2011). In the same experiment, it was also observed that the environment where priming is done is also quite significant in influencing the outcome of the process. Here, it is suggested that undertaking priming tests in a quiet environment are most appropriate because such types of environments provide the peace needed for the priming process. Therefore, there are different parameters in priming tests that may influence the effectiveness of the process. This is another limitation for priming.

Neural Basis behind Conflict Adaptation

Many researchers have undertaken studies done to explain the neural basis behind conflict adaptation. Many of such researchers have done experiments where targets are supposed to respond to a central letter (X or Y). Within the same experiments, there are several distracting letters, which can result in either congruent findings like ‘XXXX’ or incongruent findings like ‘XXYX’ (Eriksen 1960). The main aim of the distracting letters is to exert pressure on the participants (although they are largely irrelevant). Where the distracter-effect was dominant, there were large congruency levels observed, but upon undertaking subsequent studies, it was proposed that previous congruency effects modulated the congruency level (Desender and Van-den-Bussche, 2012). In conflict, adaptation, the above understanding can be used to explain the fact that when people are faced with conflict, they use previous experiences to reduce the source of conflict. For example, in the above experiment, the reduction of distraction words would be a perfect example of reducing the source of conflict information. Therefore, even though the participants may be required to ignore irrelevant information (distraction words); they still use such information to adapt their behaviors.

The Stroop task, Simon task, and the priming paradigm have also arrived at the above conclusions because these experiments show that it does not matter what mode of conflict is conveyed, the same outcome will be realized in conflict adaptation. Therefore, whenever subjects experience conflict, they are highly likely to use distraction information (from this experience) to reduce the influence of irrelevant information in subsequent trials (Keifer 2007).


From the studies sampled in this paper, there is little disagreement regarding the fact that the conscious mind is responsible for cognitive control. However, there are specific explanations that can be advanced to account for the slight inconsistencies, which propose the view that unconscious stimuli can equally lead to cognitive control. Consequently, we can affirm the fact that cognitive control mainly occurs when the prime is visible to the subject in the study (Pavone, 2009, p. 1424). Similarly, we can affirm that the control process leading to information change can occur when there is a masked stimulus. Therefore, if cognitive control is to be realized in a specific context, the need for cognitive control is dispensable; however, if the need for cognitive control is implicit, the subject needs to be aware of the event.

Awareness is also explained concerning visibility and its limitations in priming. Here, it is important to highlight that visibility may be a limitation to priming because when there is insufficient visibility; it is difficult to realize effective priming. Therefore, for effective priming to be realized, sufficient awareness needs to be created. The effectiveness of priming is consequently realized best in unmasked priming. More importantly, this understanding is crucial in the comprehension of how unconscious stimuli may affect cognitive control.

The view that cognitive control can happen without conscious stimuli is therefore shrouded in serious methodological and theoretical inconsistencies, which can be cited as the cause of the inconsistencies in research findings. This understanding is explained by the failure to undertake effective priming tests. This is cited as another limitation to effective priming. The view that cognitive control is best evident when there is a conscious stimulus is, therefore, a reliable view of understanding executive control.

Considering the methodological and theoretical inconsistencies cited in this paper (as the basis for research inconsistencies advancing the view that unconscious stimulus can lead to cognitive control), future research should study the extent that unconscious stimuli can affect cognitive control, excluding the inconsistencies cited in this paper. Therefore, from the findings of this study, we can agree that the brain’s limits when perceiving information unconsciously are mainly limited to visible primes. Otherwise, cognitive processes are mainly limited to conscious stimuli alone. From the same analysis, we affirm the view that researchers who voice the opinion that unconscious stimuli can result in cognitive control are wrong to the extent that this observation is marred by serious methodological and theoretical inconsistencies.

These findings notwithstanding, we can also agree that the brain can formulate a strategy when the target is visible and there is awareness created regarding the intended objectives. This observation has been explained by the presence of visible primes in initial experiments. This dynamic equally describes the limitations for strategy formulation. Explicitly, the most reliable experiments show that the presence of conscious stimuli outlines the limitations for strategy establishments. Therefore, it is often difficult for the brain to formulate a strategy merely based on unconscious stimuli and the lack of cognitive awareness. Consequently, even though some researchers observe that unconscious, stimuli may lead to cognitive control; little evidence proposes that the absolute presence of unconscious stimuli (alone) can effectively lead to strategy development.


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