Behind the closed doors of our adaptive unconscious

By Ceara Harper

Although understanding varies greatly, it is highly accepted that the ‘unconscious mind’ controls subliminal information processing, which has the potential to influence higher mental processes (Bargh 2006). The ‘adaptive unconscious’ can be thought of as a sub-section to this level of thinking. Malcom Gladwell refers to the adaptive unconscious in his brilliant book, ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking’, as “a giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings” (Gladwell, 2006). It is a type of thinking that evolved before our conscious mind, increasing our chances of survival by keeping us out of danger, helping us to detect patterns, to learn new things and to process snippets of information quickly (Wegner, 2002). The adaptive unconscious is necessary to filter out the bulk of information our brains are required to process; without which, we would be left floundering, unable to navigate life effectively (Wilson and Bar-Anan, 2008). With everyday life, so many of our decisions, judgements, impressions, behaviours and goal pursuits we make are not based off conscious higher-level cognitive thinking, but by this potentially unreachable and undecipherable part of our brain. These reactions to our environment are characterised by being apparently uncontrollable, unintentional and existing as separate from conscious cognition (Greenwald, Klinger and Schuh, 1995). We’re alerted of a dangerous situation far before we’re consciously ‘aware’ of the peril. For example, when you have a feeling someone is behind, or someone’s eyes are on you – this is because part of our brain collects this subliminal data and processes it, alerting us only when it is of concern to us. It can help inform whether something is real or fake; or if a teacher will be effective after only 2 seconds of exposure to them (Ambady and Rosenthal, 1993) etc. and after years of experience in a field, we are able to make snap judgements on these topics without us knowing how we know (Gladwell, 2006)

Snap judgements by our adaptive unconscious are incredibly efficient at prediction and can provide invaluable insight. Gladwell refers to this as ‘thin-slicing’, which can often be more informative and accurate than careful and deep analysis of a situation (but not always). For example, a social psychologist Samuel Gosling carried out a study where he asked 77 university students to complete a personality test by asking non-direct questions. He also asked one or two of their closest friends, before asking complete strangers to carry out the same personality test following a 15 minute browse of subjects’ dorm rooms. The subjects were judged on extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience. The results were fascinating – as expected, the strangers were not as accurate as close friends at judging extraversion or agreeableness as subjects’ self-assessment, but they were better at determining the conscientiousness, emotional stability and their openness to experience (Gosling et al., 2001). This reveals something interesting about thin-slicing; a 15 minute peek into a personal life was shown to be more revealing for predicting who people are, than months of experience with a public persona. The strangers picked up on cues in the dorm rooms like identity claims (e.g. achievements), behavioural residue (e.g. clothes on floor, neat desk) and, thoughts and feeling regulators (e.g. scented candles, colourful rugs), whilst lacking a wealth of extra data from experience with the subject, which could confuse or prejudice their judgement (Gladwell, 2006). This shows that sometimes, having more information available in our brain doesn’t always lead to more accurate choices.

Our conscious actions, such as choices, are influenced by unconscious factors. These include priming, unconscious deliberations, information from the dorsal pathway, dynamically unconscious motivations as well as automatic and habituative behaviour (Lumer, 2019). However, consciously, we are unable to understand why we have made these choices because we cannot access the information in our adaptive unconscious (Wegner, 2002). Therefore, when asked to explain our preferences, we’re unable to. Instead, we confabulate, filling in the gaps and attempting to make-up a logical and appropriate reason (Wilson and Bar-Anan, 2008). For example, in a study, men were asked to pick between two images for what they thought was the more attractive female; later some of the participants were shown the incorrect image and asked to explain why they chose that female. 70% of this group didn’t notice the change, and went on to explain why they thought the second image was more attractive (Johansson et al., 2008). The study also found that there was no difference between the answers given for the real and false choices, suggesting confabulation in both cases (Johansson et al., 2008). This is known as the ‘introspection illusion’ where individuals believe they have a direct connection with their mental processing, when they don’t (Wegner, 2002) – we don’t really know why we prefer what we prefer.

However, our adaptive unconscious is malleable to develop or change based on experience, environment and emotional reactions. On a negative note, this means it can lead to stereotyping or schema (unconsciously creating categories), such as having racist, sexist or homophobic thoughts, attitudes, or subtle effects on your actions. You can take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to see how unconsciously biased you are with regards to gender, skin-tone or religion or many other things. However, the reasons why our rapid cognition goes askew are identifiable and understood, and so we can also learn when to be weary of these thoughts and how to change them – altering future perceptions (Gladwell, 2006). Taking active steps to change your unconscious impressions of a group you have biases towards actually influences your adaptive unconscious. One way to do this is by changing the structure of your life to integrating those people in your day-to-day, to allow yourself to become more comfortable with your differences and change your unconscious misconceptions. If you take the IAT after experiencing positive associations with that group of people (e.g. maybe watch Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poetry for the gender and race test), it will change your score – try it out for yourself!


Ambady N., & Rosenthal, R. Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431-441. (1993).

Bargh J.A., editor. Social psychology and the unconscious: The automaticity of higher mental processes. Psychology Press. (2006).

Gladwell M., ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Penguin Publishers. (2006).

Gosling, S. D., Ko, S. J., Mannarelli, T., & Morris, M. E. A room with a cue: Personality judgments based on offices and bedrooms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(3), 379–398. (2002).

Greenwald AG, Klinger MR, Schuh ES. Activation by marginally perceptible (“subliminal”) stimuli: Dissociation of unconscious from conscious cognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 124:22-42. (1995)

Johansson P., Hall L., Sikstrom S. From change blindness to attention blindness, Psychologia, 51, 142-155. (2008).

Lumer C., Unconscious Motives and Actions – Agency, Freedom and Responsibility. Frontiers in psychology. 21;9:2777. (2019). 

Nisbett R. E., Wilson T. D. Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychol. Rev. 84, 231. (1977).

Pronin E., Kugler M, Schuh. Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 43 (4): 565–578. (2007).

Wegner, Daniel W. The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press. (2002).

Wilson T., and Bar-Anan Y. The Unseen Mind, Science: Vol. 321, Issue 5892, pp. 1046-1047. (2008).

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