University of Sussex
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Unconscious processing at the subjective threshold - semantic comprehension?

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posted on 2023-06-08, 19:11 authored by Anna-Marie Armstrong
Our thoughts and behaviours can sometimes be influenced by stimuli that we are not consciously aware of having seen. For example, the presentation of a word that is blocked from entering conscious visual perception through masking can subsequently influence the cognitive processing of a further target word. However, the idea that unconscious cognition is sophisticated enough to process the semantic meaning of subliminal stimuli is controversial. This thesis attempts to explore the extent of subliminal priming. Empirical research centering on subjective methods of measuring conscious knowledge is presented in a series of three articles. The first article investigates the subliminal priming of negation. A series of experiments demonstrates that unconscious processing can accurately discriminate between two nouns beyond chance performance when subliminally instructed to either pick or not pick a given noun. This article demonstrates not only semantic processing of the instructional word, but also unconscious cognitive control by following a two-word subliminal instruction to not choose the primed noun. The second article investigates subliminal priming of active versus passive verb voice by presenting a prime sentence denoting one of two characters as either active or passive and asking which of two pictorial representations best matches the prime. The series of experiments demonstrates that overall, participants were able to identify the correct image for both active and passive conditions beyond chance expectations. This article suggests that individuals are able to process the meaning of word combinations that they are not aware of seeing. The third article attempts to determine whether subliminal processing is sophisticated enough to allow for the activation of specific anxieties relating to relationships. Whilst the findings reveal a small subliminal priming effect on generalised anxiety, the evidence regarding the subliminal priming of very specific anxieties is insensitive. The unconscious is shown in these experiments to be more powerful than previously supposed in terms of the fine grained processing of the semantics of word combinations, though not yet in terms of the fine grained resolution of emotional priming.


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