Phenomenological Psychology

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The Automaticity of Everyday Life

May 9th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

This is a famous 1984 paper by the psychologist John A. Bargh.  In it he advances the hypothesis and marshalls experimental evidence for the proposition that social behavior and psychological phenomena (including the concept of “self” and the idea of “consciousness”) is “automatic in nature.”  By this he means we have no need to postulate an internal conscious mediating process to explain them and there is no need for constructs such as “free will” or “conscious choice.”  Says Bargh: “much of everyday life – thinking, feeling, and doing – is automatic in that it is driven by current features of the environment (i.e., people, objects, behaviors of others, settings, roles, norms, and so on) as mediated by automatic cognitive processing of those features, and not mediated by conscious choice or reflection.”  These “situational factors” are what “cause the average person to think/feel/behave in a certain way.”

Some require only the presence of a “triggering environmental event” to get activated.  “It does not matter where the current focus of conscious attention is, or what the individual has recently been thinking about, or what the individual’s current intentions are.”  The entire process is “preconscious.”  A second class is postconscious and goal-dependent.  These depend on more than the “mere presence of environmental objects.”  In addition to the presence of relevant environmental features, postconscious automatic processes require “priming” which prepares a mental process so that it then occurs given the triggering environmental information, and cannot occur without it.  Whether preconscious or postconscious, the psychological process “happens when its set of preconditions are in place, without needing any conscious choice or guidance from that point on.”  It occurs whenever the situational features or factors are in place.

Barge’s thesis has been critiqued in hundreds of subsequent papers.  One of its more peculiar features is that it does not cross-reference or even cite anything having to do with philosophy of mind.  It completely ignores the work of people like Descartes, Martin Heidegger and John Searle, just like they (well, Searle at least) ignore Barge. 

Heidegger is an illustrative example.  His entire program is to eliminate the Cartesian dualism between mind and body.  By way of illustration, Hubert Dreyfus is a leading Heidegger commentator.  In his book Being-in-the-World Dreyfus observes that the way we “sometimes experience ourselves as conscious subjects relating to objects by way of intentional states such as desires, beliefs, perceptions, intentions, etc.” is a “derivative and intermittent condition that presupposes a more fundamental way of being-in-the-world that cannot be understood in subject/object terms” or through cognitivist approaches.  In place of this Heidegger emphasizes the “social context as the ultimate foundation of intelligibility.”  Traditional epistemology has “maintained that knowledge is gained by means of detached, disinterested inquiry.”  But it is lived human experience that discloses the world and discovers entities in it.

Rather than using Barge’s terms of “preconscious” and “postconscious” the best way to describe this from an epistemological standpoint is “nonconscious.”  [It certainly is not “unconscious” as that term implicates for example Freudian concepts of drive, repression, anxiety, defense mechanisms, etc.]  Confusingly Barge still believes one acts intentionally and that one even has “mental representations” of objects and desired states of affairs. These are not triggered volitionally however.  They result from our behavioral interactions with the environment.  Consciousness is “epiphenomenal.”  Barge’s theory would be better off if he simply abandoned the idea of “mental representations” altogether.

There is almost a complete disconnect between modern philosophy of mind and modern psychology.  This raises a significant question: should philosophy as an academic discipline even concern itself with philosophy of mind, or should this be the exclusive province of psychology?  One way of looking at this is that all of the idle speculation in the world about perception, mental states, qualia, representations and so forth from Plato onwards is misconceived.  Even 20th-century philosophers such as Russell and Wittgenstein have no idea what they are talking about when they discuss the “mind,” absent an empirical orientation and experimental evidence. 

Psychologists such as Barge in turn can devise hypotheses and conduct experiments, but these mainly are interesting as demonstrations.  They do not establish that what they seek to prove is a universal feature of our mental life (or its absence), rather simply that it occurs some of the time in certain contexts.  Seen in the cold light of dawn many psychology experiments look stupid in light of the sweeping generalizations they attempt to establish. 

Neuroscience may be our only hope to get to adequate empirical evidence for the occurrence (or absence) of psychological phenomena.  Even then it seems unlikely that something like fMRI ever will be able to identify the substantive propositional or semantic content of thoughts, only that thoughts occur in response to a certain set of conditions. 

We still are debating the nuances of just exactly what is “mind,” as Descartes was over 300 years ago.