Nonconscious Processes

Nonconscious Processes Definition

Nonconscious ProcessesNonconscious processes (or unconscious processes) are all the processes people are not consciously aware of. As opposed to what most people think, nonconscious processes make up most interesting psychological processes. People are only consciously aware of a very limited subset of psychological processes.

Nonconscious Processes Analysis

There is logic behind this division of labor between nonconscious and conscious processes whereby consciousness is only involved in a very limited subset. First, consciousness can generally do only one thing at a time. You cannot simultaneously engage in two activities that both require conscious attention (e.g., watching a good movie and reading a book). Second, the amount of information consciousness can process is very limited. In the 1950s, researchers tried to compare the amount of information consciousness can handle with the amount all our senses (all non-conscious processes combined) can deal with. They measured information in bits—the simple dichotomous unit computers work with. They found, for instance, that when we read, we can process about 50 bits per second (this is a fairly short sentence). Generally, consciousness can process about 70 bits per second. Our senses though, can deal with a stunning amount of information: about 11.2 million bits per second.

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It is difficult to quantify the processing capacity of humans, so one should not take these numbers too literally—they are approximations. Still, the difference is enormous. If we translate them to distances, we could say that if the processing capacity of all our senses is the height of the Empire State Building, the processing capacity of consciousness is a tenth of an inch. No wonder most psychological processes are nonconscious!

Structural versus Learned Nonconscious Processes

Some psychological processes are nonconscious simply because we are the way we are. Other psychological processes are nonconscious because they are well-learned. Initially, such processes are conscious.

It is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of the structural nonconscious processes and the learned nonconscious processes because there are too many. Examples have to suffice.

An example of a structural nonconscious process is search in memory. If I ask you, “What are the three largest cities in the United States?,” you will be able to come up with an answer (the correct one is New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago). However, you do not really have conscious insight about how this works. Your non-conscious provides your consciousness with answers, but how you derive the answers is a mystery to consciousness. Memory search is a nonconscious process.

An example of a learned nonconscious process is an increase in achievement motivation when you do an exam. As children, we learn that we when we do an exam or test, we have to do our best. We concentrate hard, we think hard, and we use all our energy to do the test the best we can. Initially, however, we have to learn this. After having taken a few tests, the process becomes nonconscious. The mere fact that we are facing an exam is enough to increase our achievement motivation.


  • Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.