Is the Conscious Decision an Illusion? Pursuing Goals Unconsciously

Most of us consider that conscious will is the starting point of pursuing a goal. Recent discoveries challenge this view. The recent paper “The Unconscious Will: How the Pursuit of Goals Operates Outside of Conscious Awareness” published July 2, 2010 in Science reviews research that indicates that setting goals and then pursuing them may all happen without the involvement of conscious awareness.

I recall my surprise when Benjamin Libet presented data that showed people beginning to act to fulfill a goal, in this case by moving their finger, before they made the conscious decision to act. The lecture was more than 25 years ago but I recall wondering if our conscious decisions were sometimes simply after-the-fact explanations for actions and goals we had already carried out without conscious awareness. Evidence accumulated since then suggests that this may be the case.

The authors review recent research showing that social situations and other stimuli act to influence and control an individual’s pursuit of goals without the individual’s conscious awareness. But how can people determine whether it’s worth pursuing a given goal and invest effort in attaining it without the involvement of consciousness?

Conscious awareness of rewards is not needed for the pursuit of goals to occur is the conclusion reached by the authors of this review. They point out that the brain processes and represents behaviorally relevant information in such a way that the pursuit of a goal can be controlled by the social situation without conscious awareness of the activation and operation of the goal.