John J. Hetts Brett
Ohio State University, Columbus
State University of New York at Buffalo
A Case for the Nonconscious Self-Concept
In fact, I cannot totally grasp all that I am. Thus, the mind is not large enough to contain itself: but where can that part of it be which it does not contain?
– St. Augustine
Virtually all contemporary research on the self-concept has examined people's self-reported, consciously accessible self-conceptions (for reviews, see Banaji & Prentice, 1994; Baumeister, 1998; Brown, 1998; Kihlstrom & Klein, 1994; Wylie, 1974, 1979). However, emerging evidence suggests there are many aspects of experience that are outside our conscious awareness and control, including aspects of memory, learning, attitudes, stereotypes, and, notably, self-esteem (e.g., Bargh, 1997; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Berry & Dienes, 1993; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Schacter, 1992). Evidence has thus begun to suggest that St. Augustine was correct. Apparently a large part of who we are remains inaccessible to us. That is, there appear to be important aspects of the self-concept that reside outside of conscious awareness.
The idea that there are domains of the mind and the self to which people have little access and over which people have little control is not new. In fact, this idea can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. For example, the idea we are often unable to exert our will over our behavior was expressed both by Ovid, “I see and approve better things but follow worse, ” and Euripedes, “We know the good, we apprehend it clearly, but we can not bring it to achievement.” Throughout history, a variety of philosophers, writers, poets, play-wrights, and physicians (inter alia St. Thomas Aquinas, Cervantes, Galen, Montaigne, and Shakespeare) have explored mental processes over which people have little awareness or control (for reviews, see Margetts, 1953; Whyte, 1978). In recent years, researchers have developed techniques for examining unconscious beliefs, and we believe such techniques contribute to the development of a complete theory of the mind and the self-concept. Before discussing contemporary research on nonconscious aspects of the self-concept, however, we briefly review the history of how people have understood nonconscious thought.
Many revered thinkers have tackled the concepts of the unconscious and the self. Perhaps more than any other thinker, René Descartes (1641/1993) laid the foundation for a modern understanding of nonconscious aspects of the self. However, he did so not by developing the concept of the unconscious, but by developing a dualistic model of human experience. Two of Descartes' premises proved critical. The first premise was that human beings represent a union between a self-conscious, thinking entity and an unthinking, reflexive mechanical body. The second premise was that the self resides in the thinking entity, even in thought itself (thus the famous phrase “Cogito, ergo sum”). Descartes assumed that self-understanding (in addition to understanding the world more generally) could begin only with the awareness of one's existence. Additional principles of self-understanding could subsequently be deduced on a logical basis. This rational model of selfhood had a profound influence on the understanding of nonconscious elements of the mind. Descartes' dualistic position on mind and body dictated that anything outside of awareness must reside in the body rather than in the mind. Thus, the body became the source of drives, needs, and instincts. Reactions against Descartes' emphasis on consciousness facilitated the development of the idea that there are aspects of the mind and self of which we are not aware. These ideas laid the foundation for our contemporary understanding of the mind and, as we hope to demonstrate here, the self.
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