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Psychological Evidence of Unconscious Processing

By: , Posted on: August 28, 2014

Cognitive Neuroscience and PsychotherapyIn my previous blog post I mentioned that I would start presenting solutions in the form of core and corollary principles that provide causal mechanism information. In this blog I begin by discussing the first of the four core principles that collectively constitute the explanatory nucleus of a Bio⇔Psychology Network (BPN) explanatory system that is the subject of Section 1 ofmy book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory. These network principles along with nine corollary principles provide a way for psychological science to begin to present genuine explanations rather than interpretations. See Teo (2012) for details. In this first of three blog posts I provide psychological evidence for unconscious processing. In the second blog I provide neuroscience evidence of unconscious processing. In the third blog I show how parallel-distributed-processing connectionist neural network models implement neuroscience mechanism information.

I provide the following overview of the psychological evidence for unconscious processing on page 143 of my book under the heading “Psychological Science”.

Hassin (2013) reviewed the available empirical literature and found that unconscious processing implements many of the same functions that have traditionally been thought to require conscious processing. These functions include: (a) cognitive control; (b) pursing goals and managing goal conflicts; (c) reasoning; and (d) decision-making. The author concluded ‘… that unconscious processes can perform the same fundamental, high-level functions that conscious processes can perform’ (p. 195). In the remainder of this section I identify five lines of psychological cognitive science evidence regarding the reality of unconscious processing. These lines of evidence pertain to: (a) optical illusions; (b) heuristics, also known as cognitive illusions, derived from dual and triarchic processing theories; (c) Unconscious Thought Theory from social psychology; (d) implicit association testing; and (e) priming studies.

Optical Illusions

I want to say a bit more about optical illusions. They illustrate unconscious processing because we do not have to work to see many of them. In fact, once seen it is difficult and probably impossible for most of us, to not see them. We automatically see visual illusions. We will see below that unconscious processing also brings us cognitive illusions.

Cognitive Science

Cognitive science might seem to be the last place that one would look for evidence of unconscious processing because this field seems to be almost entirely about conscious processing. Curiously, Miller’s (1956) famous “magic number” of 5 ± 2 places an upper limit of 7 on the number of items that can consciously processed in working memory. Any processing of additional information must occur unconsciously.

Dual processing theories such as Kahneman’s (2011) two systems have been extensively supported by controlled empirical research. System 1 refers to automatic processing that people are largely unaware of. System 2 refers to conscious rational thought. But System 2 requires much more effort than System 1 does which is why System 1 is active most of the time. System 1 is characterized by approximately 50 cognitive heuristics; short cuts for solving cognitive problems that yield results that are not supported by rational processing and therefore reflect unconscious processing. On page 147 of my book, I noted that:

This view that cognition is defective was not initially happily or readily accepted by cognitive psychologists because such a conclusion stands in the way of creating purely rational theories of human psychology and behavior. Kahneman and Tversky (1996) essentially settled this debate with their article entitled ‘On the Reality of Cognitive Illusions’. Their use of the term cognitive illusion is especially important, because like optical illusions that are widely acknowledged to be unconscious properties of our neural networks, Kahneman and Tversky consider cognitive illusions also to be unconscious properties of our neural networks.


Accepting the psychological evidence presented above and in my book and in the next two blogs that unconscious processing is real does not make you a Freudian. We shall see in a subsequent blog that Freud did not discover the unconscious. Freud certainly popularized unconscious processing but “club or cult membership” is not required to discuss it.

In my next blog I consider neuroscience evidence of unconscious processing that I believe definitively establishes the reality of unconscious processing. In a subsequent blog I show how Parallel-Distributed-Processing (PDP) Connectionist Neural Network (CNN) models provide mechanism information regarding unconscious processing.

About the Author

Tryon Wife
Here’s Dr. Tryon with his wife, Georgiana, in Speculator, NY.

Warren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy. In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is


Hassin, R. R. (2013). Yes it can: On the functional abilities of the human unconscious. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 195–207.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Kihlstrom, J. F., Barnhardt, T. M., & Tataryn, D. J. (1992). The psychological unconscious: Found, lost, and regained. American Psychologist, 47(6), 788–791.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97.

Raichle, M. E., MacLeod, A. M., Snyder, A. Z., Powers, W. J., Gusnard, D. A., & Shulman, G. L. (2001). Inaugural article: A default mode of brain function. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 98(2), 676–682.

Tryon, W. W. (2014). Cognitive neuroscience and psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory. New York: Academic Press.

This blog and all others by Dr. Warren Tryon can be found on his Fordham faculty webpage located at  

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