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Unconscious Emotion

Piotr Winkielman1 and Kent C. Berridge2

1University of California, San Diego, and 2University of Michigan

ABSTRACT—Conscious feelings have traditionally been viewed as a central and necessary ingredient of emotion. Here we argue that emotion also can be genuinely unconscious. We describe evidence that positive and negative reactions can be elicited subliminally and remain inaccessible to introspection. Despite the absence of subjective feelings in such cases, subliminally induced affective reactions still influence people’s preference judgments and even the amount of beverage they consume. This evidence is consistent with evolutionary considerations sug- gesting that systems underlying basic affective reactions origi- nated prior to systems for conscious awareness. The idea of unconscious emotion is also supported by evidence from affective neuroscience indicating that subcortical brain systems underlie basic ‘‘liking’’ reactions. More research is needed to clarify the relations and differences between conscious and unconscious emotion, and their underlying mechanisms. However, even un- der the current state of knowledge, it appears that processes underlying conscious feelings can become decoupled from pro- cesses underlying emotional reactions, resulting in genuinely unconscious emotion.

KEYWORDS—affect; automaticity; consciousness; emotion; neu-


person is attentive and motivated to describe his or her feelings cor- rectly (Berridge & Winkielman, 2003; Winkielman, Berridge, & Wilbarger, in press). Such an emotional process may nevertheless drive the person’s behavior and physiological reactions, even while remaining inaccessible to conscious awareness. In short, we propose the existence of genuinely unconscious emotions.


The assumption that emotions are always conscious has been shared by some of the most influential psychologists in history. In his famous article ‘‘What Is an Emotion,’’ James (1884) proposed that emotion is a perception of bodily changes. This perception forms a conscious feeling, which is a necessary ingredient of both simple affective states, such as pleasure and pain, and more complex emotions, such as love or pride. Conscious feeling is exactly what distinguishes emotion from other mental states. Without it, ‘‘we find that we have nothing left behind, no ‘mind-stuff’ out of which the emotion can be con- stituted . . .’’ (p. 193). For Freud (1950), too, emotions themselves were always conscious, even if their underlying causes sometimes were not: ‘‘It is surely of the essence of an emotion that we should feel it, i.e. that it should enter consciousness’’ (pp. 109–110).

To say that people are conscious of their own emotions sounds like a truism. After all, emotions are feelings, so how could one have feelings that are not felt? Of course, people sometimes may be mistaken about the cause of their emotion or may not know why they feel a particular emotion, as when they feel anxious for what seems no particular reason. On occasion, people may even incorrectly construe their own emotional state, as when they angrily deny that they are angry. But many psychologists presume that the emotion itself is intrinsically conscious, and that with proper motivation and attention, it can be brought into the full light of awareness. So, at least, goes the tradi- tional view.

The assumption that affective reactions are conscious is widely shared in the contemporary literature on emotion. Explaining how most researchers use the term ‘‘affect,’’ Frijda (1999) said that the term ‘‘primarily refers to hedonic experience, the experience of pleasure and pain’’ (p. 194). Clore (1994) unequivocally titled one of his essays ‘‘Why Emotions Are Never Unconscious’’ and argued that subjective feeling is a necessary (although not a sufficient) condition for emotion. In short, psychologists past and present generally have agreed that a conscious feeling is a primary or even a necessary in- gredient of affect and emotion.


Our view goes a bit further. We suggest that under some conditions an emotional process may remain entirely unconscious, even when the

Address correspondence to Piotr Winkielman, Department of Psy- chology, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, e-mail: pwinkiel@ucsd.edu, or to Kent Berridge, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 East University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1109, e-mail: berridge@ umich.edu.

By contrast, it is now widely accepted that cognitive processes and states can be unconscious (occurring below awareness) or implicit (occurring without attention or intention). So, it may not require much of a leap to consider the possibility of unconscious or implicit emo- tion. As Kihlstrom (1999) put it,

Paralleling the usage of these descriptors in the cognitive un- conscious, ‘‘explicit emotion’’ refers to the person’s conscious awareness of an emotion, feeling, or mood state; ‘‘implicit emo- tion’’, by contrast, refers to changes in experience, thought, or


Copyright r 2004 American Psychological Society

Volume 13—Number 3

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