Behavioural Science Blog

The Science of Human Behaviour

Posts Tagged ‘behaviour

Dan Fitzgerald about fMRI – Video interview

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This is a Behavioural Science Video Interview with Daniel Fitzgerald about fMRI

fMRI Video Interview #1

  • Introduction
  • What is fMRI?
  • fMRI Research
  • fMRI Method
  • fMRI Signal
  • The Salmon
  • Corrections & Thresholds
  • The Black Box
  • The Press

fMRI Video Interview #2

  • fMRI & Behaviour
  • Understanding Behaviour
  • Getting Started
  • Use of fMRI
  • Future of fMRI
  • Brain Pacemakers

Written by Martin Glanert

February 6, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Unconscious Perception: Reply by Tom Wootton

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This is a reply posted at LinkedIn by Tom Woottoon to the original article: Unconscious perceptual processes.


I spoke to 150 mostly doctors and therapists last week and continue to be amazed at how my radical ideas are so well received. Depresssion, Bipolar, and Schizophrenia can be turned into an advantage with professional guidance and disciplined effort. Using the unconscious mind is a major tool that can help.

I did a Google search on Unconscious Perception and even though I have a 142 IQ, I have no idea what it means :-) I’ll post some of the info I found at the end of this message and maybe someone can explain it.

Our core principles are that we need acceptance, introspection, mind skills, a valid plan with measurable milestones, professional help, and our own effort to turn our condition into an advantage.

Among other things, acceptance includes accepting the possibility that your condition can be turned into an advantage instead of trying to make it go away. I can go into greater detail, but that is not the focus of the topic.

Introspection means to look within and gain understanding. It is central to therapy, but can also be a practice outside of the therapeutic sessions. Mood charting fits within the realm of introspection as do many other practices. We teach a simple process where the subconscious mind helps us notice things that we are usually unconscious of.

We help people create a list of 5 – 7 questions with a simple yes or no answer for three different topics – how are your thoughts; how are your behaviors; and are you living according to what you believe in. The person doing the introspection sets a regular time to read and answer the questions every day. As they are just yes or no questions, it only takes a couple of minutes.

What happens is the subconscious mind begins to monitor those topics so that you can answer the questions. You start out totally unconscious of the triggers and reactions, but the subconscious mind keeps track in order to know whether to answer yes or no. Eventually, the subconscious mind breaks through and allows you to see not only the event, but further and further into the thoughts and actions that lead to the event.

At first we have no idea why we react to things the way we do as we are unconscious of the triggers as we have not learned how to perceive them.

There is a video of this topic at:

Another video that covers perception is at:

Now as to the definition of Unconscious Perception:

“Previous research has demonstrated that hemispheric asymmetries for conscious visual perception do not lead to asymmetries for unconscious visual perception. These studies utilized emotionally neutral items as stimuli. The current research utilized both emotionally negative and neutral stimuli to assess hemispheric differences for conscious and unconscious visual perception. Conscious perception was measured using a subjective measure of awareness reported by participants on each trial. Unconscious perception was measured by an ”exclusion task,” a form of word-stem-completion task. Consistent with predictions, negative stimuli were consciously perceived most often when presented to the right hemisphere. Negative stimuli presented to the right hemisphere showed no evidence of unconscious perception, suggesting that the hemispheric asymmetry for the conscious perception of negative information occurs at the expense of unconscious perception.”

What does that mean?

By Tom Wootton President/CEO at Bipolar Advantage

Written by Martin Glanert

March 13, 2009 at 11:14 pm

Unconscious perceptual processes

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This article was inspired by a lecture given by Pamela Smith at the Radboud University Nijmegen.

The purpose of perception is to support behaviour.

Why do we perceive things in the first place? What is the point of it? Is it so we can understand the world? That sounds logical, but that cannot be the whole story. For example a frog can taste, smell and see, but hardly understands. If you look at “lower level” animals you see the direct connection of perception and behaviour.
Frogs have two perceptual systems, one is for finding small objects (=get it and eat it) and the other one is for avoiding large objects (hop away and hide). Thus (at least in frogs) behaviour always follows perception.
But we humans are pretty elaborate creatures (at least we like to see ourselves that way). Do we also have that direct perception-behaviour link? When we see a cup, we do not necessarily have to grasp for it.

What makes us different?

There are two theories of why humans do not react directly to perception (at all times). One of them is called the facilitator-hypothesis and it states that there needs to be another source of energy (facilitator) in order (for the individual) to become active.However another hypothesis has received much more experimental attention and results: The inhibition-hypothesis: Perceptions always elicits action, but action can be inhibited (Gilbert, 1989).
The inhibition option makes sense, because important parts of the brain are the same as in reptiles. However we have some new structures as well. The neocortical area is sort of built on top of older parts of the brain, so it would make sense that it “adds” a function to the basic brain functions. Another important source of information are patients with prefrontal cortex damage. They often have problems controlling their actions and (re)act impulsively. It would seem that their “inhibition” system has somehow become damaged.

Experimental proof for the inhibition hypothesis

Tucker and Ellis (1998) looked at how we perceive objects. Participants had to say whether objects show where right up or upside down. All objects had handles either pointing to the right or the left. They found an interaction effect between handle side and object orientation. For example when the participants saw a teapot pointing to the right they were faster pushing the right key, even when object orientation was irrelevant to the task. The results of this experiment is usually interpreted as proof for the existence of automatic tendencies to interaction with the object. (If you find that interesting read some studies about embodied, embedded cognitions.)
But this is not the only experiment supporting the inhibition hypothesis. There is a brain circuit that is connected to a grasping motion (Chao and Martion 2000). Chao and Martion showed participants different tools. Objects that could be grasped elicited activated that specific brain circuit, even though grasping was not a relevant feature of the task.

Seeing – Taste
Simmons et al. (2005) showed that looking at food pictures activates taste perception. In a study by Zwaan and Taylor (2006), participants turned a button either clockwise or counter-clockwise to indicate whether a sentence makes sense or not. Some of the sentences proposed a clockwise or counter-clockwise motion. Those sentences that implied a certain motion facilitated turning the button in this direction. Again it is important to notice that turning the button was irrelevant to the task.

Chameleon Effect
What about if you see somebody performing a certain behaviour? Are you more likely to perform the same behaviour? Yes: It is called imitation and it makes other people like you. It is what Cartrand & Bargh (1999) call he Chameleon effect. A participant described different pictures together with a confederate. In one condition the confederate did rub their face and shook their feet. Participants did rub the faces and shook their feet more if the confederate did so. The best explanation of why they did so seems to be that through imitation they can build rapport with the other person.

Couples’ facial expressions
Another example is the imitation of emotional expressions. From a functional point of view this might help understand emotion (Zajonc et al. 1987). Zajonc looked at romantic partners. If you spend a lot of time with a certain person you naturally mimic that person a lot. If that happens for decade you develop the same sort of wrinkles, because you are making the same sort of facial expressions every day, again and again. Observers rated husband and wife as looking much more similar than random paired strangers.

Priming “elderly” reduces walking speed
Reading about old people makes you walk to the elevator much slower (Bargh, Chen, & Burruws, 1996). In their experiment the task was to make sentences with words that included words that primed participants with the concept of elderly. Thought the spreading of activation with activate the concept of elderly, which in turn activates the concept of elderly. This actually influences walking speed on the way back to the elevator (dependent measurement).

Smell of cleaning fluid makes you behave in a clean way
Rob Holland could show that the same effect can be shown using smell as the activator of a concept (Holland et al. 2005). People filled out an questionnaire in one room. Some participants sat in a room where there was a bucket of water with a little bit of cleaning fluid. Then all participants went into a room free of smells. They then had to eat a biscuit that crumbles a lot (very messy). Participants were recorded on video and observers counted how many times participants picked up the crumbs/cleaned the table. People who first sat in the room with the smell of cleaning fluid did pick up the crumbs significantly more often. Thus we see the concept of perception and action coming back once again. Presumably the smell of the cleaning fluid activated the concept of “clean”, which then became connected to action while eating the biscuit.

Conscious or unconscious?

Owen at al. (2006) put patients that were in a vegetative state in the FMRI and they were given instructions to visit different situations, such as playing tennis or visiting the rooms in their home. You can clearly see that the brain activity in the patient and the control show pretty much the same activation pattern. So the patient was able to understand the instructions and act upon it. However was the patient really conscious or could the effect also be explained by unconscious processes?

Unconscious Processes

Pierce and Jastrow 1884 were the first people to research unconscious processes. They had objects that differed in weight. They made themselves blind to what the weights were and took two weights and wrote down which one was heavier (you can try that yourself!). Even when they had a confidence rating of zero, they were doing better than chance. Even though they were reporting the differences, they were not consciously aware of the difference in weight.

Otto Pötzl (1917) showed participants pictures for 10 ms. Some of those pictures appeared in their dreams. More recently Bob Zajonc (1980) said that affect is primary, that it occurs before cognition and does not require cognition. Staple et al. (2002) elaborated on this idea and presented faces to participants on a computer screen. The faces were showing emotional expressions and had clear gender cues. What they found was that when things were presented very quickly people only picked up the emotional information (30ms). When presented a little bit longer (100ms) people were also able to pick up on the gender cue. This makes also sense form a evolutionary perspective: It is very handy to pick up fast on the emotional state of someone.

Murphy and Zajonc (1993) presented participants with happy and angry faces for either 4ms or 1000ms. After the picture participants saw a Chinese ideograph. They had to rate the ideograph on the emotional valence (“What does that mean?”). They showed that the presentation of the face did indeed influence the rating of the ideograph when the picture was presented subliminally. In the other condition (1000ms presentation) the effect was not present. So when people become consciously aware of the emotional stimulus they might correct for emotional influences. However as subliminally presented stimuli never react the conscious mind, one can not be aware of the effect it has on behaviour.
Whalen et al. (1998) presented participants with a happy or a fearful face for 33ms and a neutral face for 167ms. People cannot report seeing two faces, but they only see the neutral face. However they showed different reaction to the faces in the amygdale, a part of the brain that is involved in reactions to dangers.

From unconscious perception to unconscious behaviour

Bargh, Chen & Burrows (1996) subliminally presented participants either with Black faces or White faces. Participants were presented with the face for 26 ms and the immediately saw a bunch of circles. They had to judge whether it is an even or an odd numbers of circles on the screen. After 130 trials they got an error message. The experimenter came in and told them that they had to start all over again. The crucial measurement in the experiment was how the participant would react when told that he or she had to do the task all over again? The results show that people who saw the black faces acted more hostile than people who saw the white faces.

Fitzsimons et al. (2008) did research with subliminal brand perception, especially Apple and IBM computers. Participants saw numbers on the screen and had to keep track of the sum of numbers While participants did that they were primed with either the Apple or the IBM logo (or something unrelated). Then they did a creativity task (Something like “How many unusual uses of the item X can you think of?”). Apple primed people showed more unusual uses than the IBM primed group. Someone should repeat that experiment and test the brand perceotion of Linux…
Subliminal perception is closely related to subliminal advertising. Can we influence People to buy those products that we subliminally brand people with? James Vicary primed people with “drink Coke” or “eat popcorn” and told that people bought a lot more. However this most probably is a hoax, as no one has ever seen real data.
But people had already an attitude about Coke. Can we also change attitudes that people already have? You might remember the subliminal advertising that the Bush campaign used in the 2000 election? The gore administration as the bureauc-RATS. But that really was not subliminal.

So can you affect peoples behaviour? Johan Karremans looked at that in a consumer behaviour situation. He started out by making some participants thirsty and others not. Participants had to taste salty sweets (drop) – in an alleged tong letter detection test to make sure they were really sucking on the drop. Then were then primed with Lipton ice or Npeic Tol. There was a priming effect, but only to people who were thirsty. So subliminally priming works but only when people are in the right state.
Does subliminal self-help work?

Ap Dijksterhuis (2004) tried to improve participants self-esteem with a subliminal condition paradigm with the word I and positive adjectives such as warm, sweet, nice, sincere…
Frame 1: Xxx
Frame 2: I
Frame 3: Nice
When people see themselves paired with positive words they showed more positive self-esteem (tested with the name-letter-effect).
So what can we do with subliminal influencing? Well it is not sure, the field is just starting, Only in the last decade we have computers that can present stimuli in a very short time. There is good experimental software now that we can use and a lot of new test paradigms have been developed.

The Role of Deliberative Processing in Behavioural Regulation

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It is interesting to note that most of models for behaviour have a focus on the automatic, impulsive part of behavioural regulation. However, deliberation has not disappeared from the scene and makes up a part of some models.

The Mode-Model by Fazio consists of two different classes of processes that can regulate behaviour. The spontaneous process begins with the presence of an environmental trigger. Such perceptions are affected by the knowledge structures, affect, value and expectations that are associated with the current situation. The model expects behaviour to be largely determined by this route. The deliberative processing is marked by cognitive work. It needs conscious information to be present and analyses it in order to identify costs and benefits. However, a deliberative process might still involve some components that are influenced by automatic processes, thus mixed processes are possible.

In his paper on implementation intention Gollwitzer (1993) focuses on the automatic route to behaviour. He also believes that with perceptual information certain situated knowledge is activated. In his model automatic goal pursuit arises from frequent pairing of goal and stimulus. He proposes however a deliberative way to mimic this process. If an implementation intention is consciously formed and practised then this goal information will become active, when the “if” perception occurs. The behavioural schema of the “then”-part is then automatically activated.

Pochaska’s research has led to some interesting findings concerning the change of behavioural patterns. He proposes a model of five steps that are connected in a circle. The first step is precontemplation, followed by contemplation and preparation. The behaviour change is then enacted and, crucially for the success, maintained. Although automatic processes might also be involved, the general outline is focussed on deliberative thought. Most of the suggestion for supporting people who are changing involve stimulating deliberative thought processes in the client.

Last but not least, the model of the reflective impulsive system as supposed by Strack and Deutsch: The main body of the model is made up of the associative store. Episodic and semantic links spread activation between the perception /imagination and behavioural schemata. Only the impulsive system is able to generate behaviour by an “impulsive action”. Yet the reflective system is also important, as it can influence the spreading of activation of every step of the deliberation process. Those steps involve: Propositional categorization, noetic decision and behavioural decision. This model is very comprehensive and provides a unifying framework for many different theories.

The Mode-Model, Gollwitzer’s idea on implementation intention and the reflective impulsive system share many features, yet they focus on slightly different topics with regard to behaviour control. Whereas Gollwitzer is interested in how behaviour can be changed, but on a more mechanical level than Pockaska, the other two models give an explanation of how and why behaviour arises from a more general point of view.

I believe that the strongest empirical evidence for the effect of deliberation on behaviour comes from intention implementation, because in order to change unwanted behaviour one does need to compete with the automatic behaviour for the most activation in order to activate the appropriate behavioural schema. In order to do so the automatic associations must be changed. This was confirmed by Gollwitzer (2002) and his colleagues. They showed that participants holding implementation intentions reacted to words describing the anticipated critical situation much stronger than participants who had only formed goal intentions.

I believe that all theories concerned with deliberation will need to look closely at automatic, impulsive behaviour. As with the implementation intention I believe that the influence of deliberation on behaviour is mostly indirect, as supposed by Strack and Deutsch. Furthermore I believe that research in embodied embedded cognition will contribute to the topic of behavioural regulation, because it can generate specific hypotheses on how the activation in the impulsive system spreads. For example, Wong & Yon (1991) have proposed that associations are less semantically but more perceptually oriented. For example, asking participants to describe a water melon (many report green and stripes) yields different results than asking them to describe half a water melon (participants report much more red). I believe that if it is clearer how the associations are interconnected, it will also be much easier to see how deliberate processes can have influence on behaviour and how reflective and impulsive processes interact with each other.

Free Will and Consciousness

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The topic of free will has been a central issue since the beginning of philosophy: How do rational agents exercise control over one’s actions and decisions.

In “the precise of the illusion of conscious will” (2004), Daniel M. Wegner explores the idea of apparent mental causation. He argues that if a thought arises just before an action takes place, if it is consistent with the action and the exclusive salient cause of the action, we will regard ourselves as the agent of the behaviour.

Libet (1985) showed in his experiment that conscious perception of reality lives about half a second in the past. He concluded that we could not have free will, since our brain already comes into action, before we have consciously engaged in the idea. He offered however, as some kind of last hope, the veto right of the free will. The same effect has also been found by Cunningham et al. (2001). In a computer game, similar to space invaders, participants had to use a computer mouse with a half second delay. When the delay was removed, the participants reported that the hand moved before they had consciously made that decision.

So does free will exist? If we live in the past and we falsely attribute behaviour to ourselves that we had no influence of, how can we propose that we are consciously in control of our behaviour? Is consciousness but an epiphenomenon?

I believe that these findings have to be interpreted very carefully. Although they offer intriguing hypothesis about how and why we act, we should not, in a hurry, remove consciousness from the picture. When lifting your finger, as done Libet’s experiment, the motor program running will be automatic, although the decision to do so might be conscious. But do participants really make their conscious choice a few milliseconds before the execution? I believe that they will execute the task in a mental simulation as soon as they are told what will be expected of them in this experiment. So the “causal decision” to execute the movement might be the activation of the action potential itself, not the conscious report of the decision to life the finger. The original decision to lift the finger at that time might have occurred much earlier. The ultimate decision to do so, by putting the body in such a state as to engage in this behaviour, was conscious.

I can only speculate how this mechanism actually could word, but in the computer world there is something called “cronjob”. This is an automatic program that is set to run at a specific time. Its much like always taking your medication at a specific time in order not to forget it. After a while you will remember it automatically at the given time. Thus consciousness might be able to implement such timed processes. If you think about consciousness pulling the string in the background, the half-second delay of the perception does not pose a huge problem. It does however, if free will necessarily requires consciousness to be online “in realtime” to make decisions.

In the computer experiment of Cunningham et al., involving the mouse delay, it is important to plan ahead because the participants know that they will have to cope with a delay. They ordered an action before it actually took place. They did so consciously and also successfully. We might just have adjusted to that specific delay between action and perception very well, because it feels natural to us. As long as consciousness can rely on automatic processes to carry out the proper motor behaviour, it does not need control in real time. Nørretranders (1999) also believes that speed is an important issue; he believes that “ Things that need to happen quickly happen subconsciously.”. Because adjustments of motor behaviour do not require conscious thought, they are not subject to the 500 ms delay.

Backdating perceptions might rather have other practical implications, for example to enhance structuring the environment in meaningful ways. The results of Wegner’s study can be interpreted in this way. Although Wegner’s studies show that our attribution of agency to action can be fooled, It might rather be the case that perception is fooled. I am not convinced that this requires the necessary conclusion that we do not have free will. As seen with the mouse delay, the “natural perception delay” can be altered. In the patient with clinical condition this alteration might include all senses and be persistent. I therefore conclude that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon, but an integral part in the selection of behaviour.


Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary
action. Behavioral and brain sciences 8:44, 529-566.

Nørretranders, T. (1999). The User Illusion, Penguin.

Wegner, M. (2004). Précis of The illusion of conscious will. Behavioral and brain sciences, 27, 1-11.

Written by Martin Glanert

November 7, 2007 at 1:14 am