Doing Without Feeling

Upside Down

[Photo by wiseacre]

Having introduced the idea of the emotional unconscious in the last post, I am going to dive straight into some of the research which attempts to prove its existence. Kent Berridge at the University of Michigan has carried out some interesting research into the emotional unconscious. But despite some good evidence, Berridge & Winkielman (2003) make the point that the existence of unconscious emotions is still controversial.

This is made clear by the caution with which Berridge Winkielman (2003) discuss the idea when introducing their own studies. Like LeDoux (1996), Berridge & Winkielman (2003) point to the way in which emotion has often been defined as requiring a conscious component.

In the first study Berridge & Winkielman (2003) report, Winkielman, Berridge & Wilbarger (2000) exposed participants to subliminal emotional cues in facial expressions while they thought they were engaged in a study about gender. They then allowed their participants to ‘interact’ with a fruit-flavoured drink.

The results showed that those who were thirsty and exposed to happy faces drank 50% more of the drink than neutrally primed participants. The mirror effect was seen for the negative-primed participants. Importantly, participants were not aware of the priming and were not aware of being in a better or worse mood depending on their priming condition. Further, the priming conditions had no effect on participants who weren’t thirsty.

A similar paradigm was used in Winkielman et al.’s (2000) second study. Here, though, instead of focussing on the amount of drink, participants evaluated the drink. Again, the subliminal priming had the same effect on subjective ratings of the drink. But, this time participants completed a 20-item PANAS scale before and after the subliminal priming and no differences were found.

These two studies certainly look like they provide useful evidence for the emotional unconscious, but Berridge & Winkielman (2003) consider an alternative explanation. Perhaps the unconscious information participants were primed with was purely cognitive. This would explain why participants did not report any affective changes – there hadn’t been any. Berridge & Winkielman (2003) argue, however, that this interpretation is not consistent with other evidence. This research suggests that facial expressions do indeed induce an affective response as shown on behavioural or physiological measures, e.g. activation of the amygdala.

But, if this line of argument isn’t convincing, then Berridge & Winkielman (2003) argue that a particular order manipulation in their study provides further evidence of an affective rather than cognitive process. Some participants, after subliminal priming focussed their attention on themselves, while other participants focussed on the drink. If the priming was cognitive, in the form of a ‘free-floating belief’, there should have been a difference between these two conditions. This effect was not seen, suggesting the process was affective.

Winkielman et al.’s (2000) studies certainly provide some useful preliminary evidence to support the idea of the emotional unconscious.

Berridge, K., Winkielman, P. (2003). What is an unconscious emotion? (The case for unconscious “liking”). Cognition Emotion, 17(2), 181-211. (Abstract)

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. London: Simon Schuster.

Winkielman, P., Berridge, K., Wilbarger, J. (2000). Unconscious affect for doing without feeling: Subliminal facial expressions alter human consumption. Unpublished manuscript

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 14 November 2006

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