How Can I Have a Self I Am Not Aware Of?

A reflection on the concept of "implicit bias."

Posted Apr 08, 2019

The idea of the unconscious is sometimes written off by people outside of psychology as simply a wacky idea put forward by Sigmund Freud.  But there is a lot of evidence that we are influenced by things that we are not consciously aware of. For instance, flashing the word death on a screen in a way that participants do not report seeing increases defensiveness of their belief systems in the same way as writing about death. Moral judgments are often more the result of gut-level emotional responses than any sort of reasoning, despite people's beliefs to the contrary.

We even hold implicit (outside consciousness) associations about ourselves and others that can conflict, or at least can be largely unrelated, with our explicit beliefs. Moreover, these implicit associations in many cases are better predictors of our behavior than our explicit beliefs. Those are just a small sample of studies supporting the idea that, in a sense, we have an implicit self (that we are largely unaware of) and an explicit self.

Whenever I teach this idea to students I get the sense that it is a bit unnerving. I get the same sense when I hear someone mention this on TV. You can almost feel the eye rolls. How can part of me, dear old me, not be something I can even access? And how can I be me if I am impacted by things I do not even know? 

I don't know of any research on this, but perhaps a route towards making this less unnerving is to just embrace the idea that part of who you is not something you have conscious access to, but it is still the real, authentic, you. To deny it is to actually not accept and embrace yourself. Though that still feels like it requires a leap of faith (ironically enough).

This might be an important matter for understanding how we make judgments about ourselves and other people. Research shows that when people are taught that they can be influenced by things outside of conscious awareness (and that introspection is limited) they are more likely to think they are just as susceptible to a wide range of psychological biases as others. The "bias blind spot" occurs otherwise, in which people think bias applies more to others than themselves. (These studies are about biases like the "hindsight bias," not about things like racial bias).