There is a tendency for an introspector to overestimate the power of consciousness, and its scope for self-knowledge and control of thought and behaviour.
This chapter addresses the state of the understanding of limits of conscious thought.
People are often unaware of the reasons and causes of their own behavior. In fact, recent experimental evidence points to a deep and fundamental dissociation between conscious awareness and the mental processes responsible for one’s behavior; many of the wellsprings of behavior appear to be opaque to conscious access.
Wegner and Wheatley (1999) reported studies in which participants used a computer mouse to move a cursor around a computer screen filled with pictures of objects. doing so along with another participant (actually a confederate of the experimenters) so that the two of them jointly determined the cursor’s location. While they were doing this. the names of the different objects were spoken to them one at a time over headphones. Unknown to the actual participant, the confederate was given instructions over his or her headphones from time to time to cause the screen cursor to point to a given object. By manipulating whether the name of the moved-to object had or had not been presented to the participant just (l.e., a second or two) before the cursor landed on it (as opposed to earlier, or after the cursor had landed on it), so that the “thought” about that object had been in the participant’s consciousness just prior to the cursor’s movement to it, the experimenters were able to manipulate the participant’s attributions of personal responsibility and control over the cursor’s movement. In these experiments, therefore, beliefs about personal agency could be induced by manipulations of the key factors presumed to underlie feelings of will, according to the authors’ attributional model-even though those factors had not, in fact, been causal in the cursor’s movement.
Such findings demonstrate that people do not and cannot have direct access to acts of causal intention and choice. Kenneth Bowers (1984) had anticipated this finding when he pointed out that it is “the purpose of psychological research to enhance our comprehension and understanding of causal influences operating on thought and action. Notice, however, that such research would be totally redundant if the causal connections linking thought and behavior to its determinants were directly and automatically self-evident to introspection”