Conscious and unconscious stimulus perception as a partner processes

Stimulus processing from the perspective of recent research

Research on the human brain, the processes of stimulus perception as well as its processing, and related possibilitys for influencing consumer behavior is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, many new, some breakthrough, findings could been obtained in the past few years (Elger et al. 2004). They are also particularly relevant for embedded marketing like product placement. 

One example: Consciousness and subconsciousness has been seen as merely theoretical constructs for a long time (Klass 1958). However, the latest findings in brain science show that they are rather some extremely complex brain functions (Deecke 2012).

Most functions of the human body are controlled by the subconsciousness(Bargh et al. 2001). At the same time, the majority of information and stimuli is not consciously processed – this would also cost our body way too much energy (Shulman, Hyder, and Rothman 2009) and completely overwhelm us(Deecke 2012). Our subconscious mind is, however, able to process much more information than we actually consciously register at the end (Wilson and Brekke 1994). Of all the information that meet the human senses every second, only a tiny fraction will be forwarded to our consciousness, while the subconscious mind processes all remaining data (Kornhuber and Deecke 2012; Norretranders 1999; Zimmermann 1989). Thus, all stimuli are first absorbed by our subconscious mind, which acts as a filter in front of the consciousness (Elger et al. 2004; Libet 2005). Even basic mental functions are processed subconsciously, which provides the basis for our conscious decisions (Chartrand and Bargh 1996; Chartrand et al. 2008). This is important, because we often make decisions so quickly that we were never able to use our consciousness (Ballew and Todorov 2007; Todorov et al. 2005).

The subconsciousness is the first stage of all conscious decisions!

The fact that even complex information, which we are not aware of, is usually processed and stored subconsciously (Shevrin 1990), gets particularly clear when we can recall this content in a dream or under hypnosis (Bornstein 1990; Stross and Shevrin 1969). Today, those subconsciously processed stimuli can also be visualized and demonstrated by measuring brain waves and similar methods (Elger et al. 2004; Shevrin 2001; Shevrin et al. 1996).

Nevertheless, our consciousness is of great importance for our actions. Through the conscious mind, we are able to focus on certain things and thus make conscious, deliberate choices that go beyond simple instincts (Deecke 2012). In the end, man is neither slave of his subconsciousness nor has he full conscious control over all decisions and actions (Damasio 1994). Consciousness and subconsciousness act rather in some kind of cooperation. The hierarchy can be roughly compared to a company in which the consciousness corresponds to the role of corporate management that mostly thinks about the bigger issues and strategies. Therefore, it also depends on the contribution, and information of the lower divisions that corresponds to the subconsciousness (Chartrand and Bargh 1996; Chartrand, Dalton, and Cheng 2008; Deecke 2012).

Generally, a particular behavior can be triggered and run entirely or at least partially without conscious cognitive processes (Bargh and Ferguson 2000). This is illustrated for example by the observation that we act more risk averse when the amygdala in our brain is active (Talmi et al. 2010; Weller et al. 2007). In reverse, in advance (subliminally) shown fearful faces can stimulate the amygdala (Todorov and Engell 2008; Williams et al. 2006). In a similar way, the so-called nucleus accumbens can be activated by rewarding stimuli. If this part of our brain is active, you rather take more financial risks (Knutson et al. 2008).

In addition to the many ways to communicate with the subconscious mind (priming, etc.) and to influence it without conscious perception, you also have to be aware of the general limits of our brain.

In addition to the many general limiting factors that depend on the considered process, act especially the limited processing capacities restrictive. So, our resources for sensoring and processing stimuli are limited and must be distributed respectively to the primary focus of attention and various secondary activities (Kahneman 1973, Lynch and Srull 1982). Here, the main activity is usually favored over peripheral stimuli, such as subliminal messages. If all free resources are claimed by primary activities, this means according to the Load Theory, that a recording of the secondary stimuli, such as product placement, is no longer possible (Bahrami et al. 2008; Bahrami, Lavie, and Rees 2007; Grigorovici and Constantin 2004; Haynes and Rees 2005; O’Connor et al. 2002; Schwartz et al. 2005). This is also exemplified in our graphic. However, bear in mind that the effects usually do not occur in such linear way in reality and especially the subliminal processing is also determined by other parameters. The more capacity for the primary stimulus (x-axis) must be used, the less is available for the secondary stimulus (oblique line) are available. When the secondary stimulus falls below he subjective threshold, it will be no longer be processed consciously. The maximum “Load” is the latest achieved when the lines of the primary and secondary stimulus intersect, whereby the primary stimulus would bind 100% of all resources.


Attention and consciousness as independent states of mind

Especially in the context of the Load Theory (and beyond), you have to bear in mind that consciousness and attention are according to the latest findings not necessarily linked to each other (Koch and Tsuchiya 2007). This has been a previous and therefore out-dated assupmtion (Driver and Vuilleumier 2001; Mack and Rock 2000, Rees and Lavie 2001; Zeman 2001). Thus, it is possible that the primary focus of attention is placed on subliminal stimuli which then will be favored in terms of free processing resources (Koch and Tsuchiya 2007). Prior findings that the degree of attention apparently influences the explicit memory of a stimulus, but not implicit, subconscious effects (Debner and Jacoby 1994; Janiszewski 1990; Janiszewski and Warlop 1993; Perfect and Askew 1994; Richardson Klavehn and Bjork 1988; Shapiro and Krishnan 2001; Shapiro, MacInnis, and Heckler 1997) should be reviewed in more detail – at least in terms of the used definitions.



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Conscious and unconscious stimulus perception as a partner processes
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Jens Kürschner

Author: Jens Kürschner

Jens Kürschner is founder and managing director of Placedise. As an expert in the field of consumer behavior and media enthusiast, he is especially responsible for the product know-how. In our blog, this knowledge and the experience of many years of research and study will be shared with you.

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