Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition

By Gordon B. Moskowitz | Go to book overview
Save to active project

John J. Hetts Brett
Ohio State University, Columbus
W. Pelham
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.

The Cognitive Unconscious

One of the first thinkers to organize arguments against


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition
Table of contents

Table of contents



Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 503

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?