5.9 The Dual Processing Theory of Consciousness

Jan 13, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch5 Decision Making & Reasoning in Psychology

The mind is a miraculous machine – its ability to process information is astounding. This lesson reviews implicit and explicit processing: the dual processing theory of consciousness.

Dual Processing

Have you ever experienced a situation where you had an initial gut reaction to something, but then stopped yourself from responding because you noticed that things weren’t as they seemed?

Imagine you were sitting in a coffee shop and you glanced over at the counter. Suddenly, the barista jumped and yelped. You immediately started to get up to help the woman with her burn, only to realize that she had just seen a friend and was squealing in joy, not pain. You had two responses to the same information: one automatic and one more thought out.

These are the two aspects of dual processing theory, which argues that our consciousness actually includes two layers. The implicit portion of the dual process theory is the part of your mind that reacts/responds automatically, or without conscious thought. The aspect of your consciousness that is truly conscious and controlled is the explicit, or conscious, process. These two processes occur simultaneously and independently.

Come with me as we discover the amazing work our mind can do with, and without, our awareness. Throughout this lesson, we will discuss the mind’s ability to process information. This refers to the act of using available information to make decisions about the immediate environment.

Implicit Processing

Implicit processing can be thought of as the internal processing that happens outside of awareness. You can guess that it happens really quickly, since we are not even aware that our minds are using information around us to decide on near future responses. Often, our initial response is something called the fight or flight response, because our mind uses the information available to make a snap decision to either stay in the environment or depart the environment. The standard for this decision tends to be safety (i.e., fight off the danger or run from it).

In the previous example, you immediately started to rise from your table to go to the barista. You were probably already considering (even consciously) how to assist, what medical intervention is right for burns and what other possible injuries she may have as you stood to help. This is an implicit response because the initial decision to help happened quickly, and without any conscious awareness. In the fight or flight decision, your mind concluded that the situation was not dangerous to you and that you were likely to be successful in helping; thus the implicit decision to move toward the environmental incident occurred.

If there had been multiple loud popping noises prior to the barista yelling, or if this café was in an area known for gun fire incidents, your implicit response (that fight or flight decision) may have been to run for your life.

The interesting thing about implicit processing is that it is often wrong. Information is processed so quickly that sometimes it is taken out of context. The standard of safety in the decision making process tends to encourage us to respond as if there is danger, when in fact there is none. We’ve all heard the old adage, ‘Better to err on the side of safety.’ Our implicit processing will err on the side of safety when processing information so quickly we are not even aware it is happening.

Because implicit processing happens without our awareness, it’s also fueled by our own personal biases and life experiences. A person who has never been in a war zone does not duck for cover when they hear a loud bang, but a person fresh from combat duty will likely respond as if being shot at if a car backfires nearby. What we have lived through helps form our unconscious responses.

Explicit Processing

You can think of explicit processing as decision making that is external in the sense that you are aware of it happening and control the process through logic. When you are deciding on whether to ride the bus to work or drive your car, you consciously consider all the pros and cons of each option and make your decision based on the logical conclusion of your assessment.

Assessment, or logical reasoning, is the key to explicit processing. Explicit processing makes use of all the information at hand and systematically incorporates everything available to assess a situation or decision. It can apply information carried within the mind (like specific rules or laws that apply to the situation) while processing. And while it takes longer to accomplish, it leads to accurate and appropriate behavioral responses in most circumstances.

Some researchers believe that explicit processing depends on intellect for its performance. The theory is that the higher a person’s IQ, the better they are at forming correct responses based on logical reasoning. Also, explicit processing can incorporate learned procedural rules and laws; thus someone who lacks the ability to learn these rules will not have access to them when processing information. Other researchers disagree with this assertion, though.

In our original scenario, after having begun to respond implicitly to what appeared to be an emergency, you began to consciously observe the entire environment. Maybe you noticed that the barista was smiling. You may have seen she was facing another woman who was also smiling, and possibly reaching out with open arms towards the barista. And you may have noticed that others who were closer to the situation were not responding as if there were any danger. Consciously, you put all these pieces together to form the full picture of this puzzle, correctly deducing that the barista is not in danger, but is enthusiastically greeting a friend.

Lesson Summary

Dual processing theory indicates that our ability to process information for decision making purposes happens in two distinct ways.

Implicit processing is unconscious, fast, guided by lived experiences and bias, and requires no special intellect.

Explicit processing is conscious, logical reasoning that incorporates all information available to accurately assess a situation. It may be impacted by a person’s IQ.

6.1 Attention as Part of Cognitive Development: Definition & Process
5.8 Attention and Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Processing