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Chapter: Psychology: Consciousness

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The Function of Consciousness

We’ve now seen several indications of just how much can be accomplished without consciousness, and we’ve also considered some cases in which people think they know what’s going on in their own minds but are wrong.

The Function of Consciousness

We’ve now seen several indications of just how much can be accomplished without consciousness, and we’ve also considered some cases in which people think they know what’s going on in their own minds but are wrong. Can we, from this base, gain some insights into when consciousness is needed, and what difference it makes if a process unfolds under conscious supervision rather than in the cognitive unconscious?

The answers to these questions hinge on the fact that the cognitive unconscious involves processes that are fast and effortless, but also automatic (Figure 6.4). In other words, the cognitive unconscious is not under our direct control. Instead, the cognitive unconscious is, in many settings, simply guided by habit and so performs the same operations now that it has performed in the past. In other settings, the cognitive unconscious is guided by cues in the situation itself—stimuli that indicate what the current response should be.


This  absence  of  direct  control  is  often  just  what  we  want,  because  our  habits generally serve us well and we usually do want to respond in a fashion guided by cur-rent cues. Moreover, by relying on the cognitive unconscious, we exploit processes that are, as we’ve said, fast and effortless. But what if, in some circumstances, we want to resist past habits or present temptations? What if our current goals require  that  we  launch  some  action  that’s  novel?  In  such  cases, we need  to  exercise  executive  control  so  that  we  can  inhibit  our  habits, redirect our thoughts, and reset our priorities. And executive control, it turns out, may require consciousness.

We note, though, that consciousness doesn’t guarantee control. Sometimes we are aware of what we’re doing and would prefer to do something else, but we still give in to the temptation of the moment. (This is, for just one example, the familiar situation of the dieter who’s aware that the second helping of pie is a bad idea but takes it anyhow.) Even so, consciousness is essential for executive control—a necessary first step toward directing our own mental lives.

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