Adaptive Unconscious

Adaptive Unconscious Definition

Adaptive UnconsciousAutomatic processes are processes that are unconscious, unintentional, uncontrollable, and efficient (i.e., they do not require cognitive resources). The term adaptive unconscious refers to the fact that these automatic processes evolved because they are beneficial to people who rely on them. People have to process extensive amounts of information on a daily basis to be able to function effectively and navigate their social worlds. Because people have limited amounts of cognitive resources, there would be no way to process all of this information at a conscious level. In other words, people can only consciously think about a very small amount of the information with which they are confronted. Therefore, people have developed a set of automatic processes that can help them to accomplish all of their daily tasks. Due to the usefulness and helpfulness of these unconscious processes, they are collectively referred to as the adaptive unconscious.

Adaptive Unconscious History and Modern Usage

The existence and characteristics of the unconscious have been important areas of study in philosophy and psychology. Although many people discussed unconscious processes prior to the work of Sigmund Freud, most psychologists would acknowledge that he was one of the first people to recognize that many mental processes occur without conscious awareness. Because some of Freud’s ideas have not been supported, the unconscious processes that he discussed are somewhat different from the unconscious processes that form the adaptive unconscious.

It is difficult to list all of the unconscious processes that are a part of the adaptive unconscious because there are so many of them. Some processes are unconscious because they evolved before consciousness did. For example, some parts of the human mind simply cannot be understood consciously. People have no conscious access to perceptual processes (e.g., light waves transforming into images, sound waves transforming into sound), how memories are formed, how humans balance while walking, or how people learn and process language. Yet all of these processes occur, and it is the adaptive unconscious that allows them to happen. Beyond these sensory processes, there also are higher-order processes that are part of the adaptive unconscious. People often express emotions and personality, make judgments and decisions, form impressions and evaluations, learn information, and even pursue goals without conscious awareness or attention. Thus, the cognitive processes that form the adaptive unconscious are both useful and sophisticated.

It is important to note that although these unconscious processes are called adaptive, that does not mean that they always result in accurate knowledge or correct decisions. For example, relying on unconscious processes to form impressions could result in using stereotypes to understand another person’s behavior. More often than not, however, these processes allow people to survive in their social worlds, which was, and still is, an evolutionary adaptation.


  1. Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462—179.
  2. Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.