Cognition and Human Performance

Abstract on Processing of Conscious and Unconscious Stimulus

The research study was conducted by analyzing the psychological behavior of 65 observants from Melbourne who all were English speaking. The research was conducted by the following two tasks. The first task was word stimulation and the second task was a series of two questionnaires. The word stimulation was done for measuring emotional valance using repetition priming and the questionnaire was conducted to measure anxiety and happiness using the oxford happiness scale and the Spielberg state-trait anxiety inventory. The research hypothesized that the priming effect of negative words is higher in the cognition load task which was further supported by the results.

Introduction to Processing of Conscious and Unconscious Stimulus

Humans have different cognitive patterns that enable them to adjust as per the impact of the stimulus. They can adjust their behavior flexibly in order to accomplish their goals. The mechanisms that enable flexible behavior adjustments in humans are considered as the cognitive control mechanisms (Bodner & Stalinski, 2008). Both conscious and unconscious processes are different from one another as they have their own neural substrates and modus operandi. The research conducted by Merikle, Smilek and Eastwood (2001) states that stimulus is processed by observers even though they are not aware of the stimulus. The subjective measures of checking awareness have been assessed on the basis of self-reports of the conscious behavior of the observers. However, the objective measures assess awareness on the basis of forced-choice decisions of the observers under the different stimuli. If the observers report that the stimulus was visible to them then it means that they were aware of the stimulus. However, if the observer report that the stimulus was not visible to them then, it means that they were not aware of the stimulus. These terms come up with the concept of the conscious and unconscious stimulus. Both these stimuli have different processes so it can be stated that "unconscious stimuli may not be processed to the same extent as a conscious stimulus, but may still influence our conscious behavior".

Priming is considered as the exposure to something that influences the behavior of that certain thing after some time (Bodner & Stalinski, 2008). It is a basic technique in which exposure to one stimulus can influence the response of some other stimulus without any intention. For example, priming can be conceptual, perceptual or semantic as the word NURSE can be recognized more quickly in comparison to DOCTOR followed by BEARD. This assignment used the technique of masked semantic priming/ repetition priming to study the response of the study participants. Repetition priming is the upgrade in the behavioral responses in terms of accuracy and reaction time when repeatedly exposed to a certain stimulus (Heyman et al., 2015). Masked priming is a commonly used technique that investigates the storage of words and it also investigates the impact of one word on others without the awareness of participants.

The semantic priming refers to the observations that indicate that response to a linked target group for example DOG and CAT is faster in comparison to DOG and CAR which are unrelated primes (Chow et al., 2019). One of the most influential factors that impact semantic priming is the degree of similarity. More similar words exhibit greater activation to the target and the response generated is also fast. According to Neely and Kahan (2001), words are capable of activating their meanings automatically and spatial attention does not play any role in the semantic activation. However, on the basis of scientific evidence, semantic activation is automatic in nature and it is not affected by intention of the person or attentional resources allocated in the process.

According to Markile, Smilek and Eastwood (2001), awareness in psychology can be regulated by manipulating the variants of stimulus or by guiding the observers about the distribution of their attention. The findings of the research indicated that stimulus is perceived even in the absence of consciousness. According to Demorest et al. (2016), multiple types of emotional valance can be processed distinctly in comparison to other types of words. The experiments conducted by Kosson et al. (2015), tested the processing of neutral and non-affective words in comparison to ambivalent words. Results from the experiment revealed that the stimulus that was rated to be one and two-dimensional valence and neutral were processed slowly in comparison to the stimulus that was rated as neutral on one-dimensional valence but they were rated as ambivalent on two independent scales.

Attention is a behavioral and cognitive process that requires selective concentration over a stimulus. Some people can process multiple stimuli at a time but others cannot develop a sustained focus. According to Demorest et al. (2016), cognitive resources in addition to attention can influence the processing of every stimulus. According to Heyman et al. (2015), awareness in the processing of stimulus is controlled by different stimulus conditions. These studies used awareness threshold conditions to experience the awareness of the critical stimulus. The study revealed that the stimulus was processed differently in both the conscious and unconscious observant on the basis of the stimulus.

The study conducted by Plassmann and Weber (2015) used behavioral, genetic and neuroimaging methods to examine the individual differences in context to affect and cognition. The study used the criteria of relevance to human performance, interactions between decision making, affective processing and working memory and study of individual differences. Individual differences can predict the performance of cognitive activity as some people are influenced differently by a certain stimulus in comparison to others. Findings of the research indicate that different stimuli in different people influence them in the form of sensation seeking, evaluative decision making and anxiety.


  • It was hypothesized based upon the study conducted by Markile et al. (2001) “that the priming effect of negative words is higher in the cognition load task”.
  • Based upon Karreman et al. (2019), “it was hypothesized that priming would be stronger for negative words for the participants that scored high on anxiety and the priming effect would be stronger for positive words for the people that scored high on happiness”.
  • It was hypothesized based upon Kazanas and Altarriba (2016), that “the priming effect for the meaning conditions were relatively similar across valence”.

Method of Processing of Conscious and Unconscious Stimulus


Sixty-five students from a medium sized university in Melbourne participated in the experiment. All claimed to be native speakers of English.


Word stimuli. There were sixty target words, half of which were positive and half of which were negative. In addition to these target words there were thirty neutral words that were used as unrelated primes. This created sixty prime target pairs for each valence, thirty of which were related (repetition priming) and thirty were unrelated. The words in each group were balanced on psycholinguistic characteristics including word frequency, letter length, and association strength using the website of Landauer and Dumais. Repetition priming was used such that each target word (in lower case) was primed by the same word in upper case (related prime-target pair), or was paired with a prime word (in upper case) of neutral emotional valence (unrelated prime-target pair). An example negative related repetition prime-target pair was TORTURE-torture, and the corresponding unrelated prime-target pair was JETTY-torture.

Individual differences measures. The state items from the Spielberg State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (SSTAI; Spielberger et al., 1983) were used to provide a measure of anxiety, which is a negatively valenced emotion. Items from the Oxford Happiness Scale (OHS; Argyle et al., 1995) were used to provide a measure of happiness, which is a positive valenced emotion.


Participants reached the experiment via a link on the Learning Management System. Participants were informed about the sequence of events in the task, and asked to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible. For each of the three main sections of the experiment, they completed 10 practice trials followed by 60 experimental trials. The first section of the experiment asked participants to classify words presented on the screen as negative or positive emotional valence (Meaning Task). The second task repeated the meaning task, but this time in a dual task situation (Cognitive Load Task), where they were also asked to remember a pattern containing four x's and 4 o's in various configurations. After every five trials of the meaning task, they were asked to recall the current pattern, and then were asked to remember a new pattern. Following this, they were presented with a list of questions that they should answer based on their initial intuition without thinking too hard. The questions were from the two surveys, with the questions from the SSTAI (Spielberger et al., 1983) being presented first and the OHS second (Hills & Argyle, 2002). The experimental task and the two short surveys took about 15 minutes to complete.

All of the participants performed the sequence of tasks in the same order without counterbalancing, beginning with the Meaning Task, followed by the Cognitive Load Task followed by the surveys. The instructions in the Meaning Task were designed to get participants to make a judgement about the words based on them being either of negative valence or positive valence. In the Cognitive Load Task, the participants were performing two tasks simultaneously. At the end of each block of trials, the participant were given performance feedback on latency to response and accuracy.

In terms of the stimulus presentation, the main stimuli always appeared in the centre of the screen. The timing was as follows: (a) a forward letter mask appeared for 500 ms; (b) the prime was then presented for 48 ms; (c) a backward mask appeared for 96 ms; and (e) the target remained on the screen until the participant responded. In the Cognitive Load Task, the pattern to be remembered appeared on the screen for 2500 ms, then five trials of the Meaning Task occurred, and then the participant was asked to recall the pattern. The participant had 20 seconds to record their response, and were given feedback as to whether the entry was correct before being shown another pattern to remember.

Results of Processing of Conscious and Unconscious Stimulus

Data were screened for response times that were less than 200 ms or greater than 1000 ms, and for incomplete data sets. The final data set contained data from 65 participants. To confirm that participants were successfully completing the meaning judgement in both conditions tasks, the percentage of correct responses was collated for all conditions, and presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Mean and SDs of the percentage of correct responses across conditions


Cognitive Load





Percent correct





As can be seen from this table, the mean percent correct for all tasks was well above 90% and there were no obvious differences across the two tasks. The mean percent correct for the pattern task was 82.11 (SD=15.63), confirming that participants were genuinely attempting the second task in the cognitive load condition. Reaction times as a function of emotional valence, task condition and prime relatedness are presented.

As can be seen from Figure 1, reaction times were faster in the related compared to the unrelated conditions. This difference in reaction times between related and unrelated prime-target pairs is referred to as a priming effect. When comparing related trials between the meaning and cognitive load conditions, reaction times appear generally faster for the load conditions. However, for the unrelated trials, the reaction times appear slightly slower in the load task. In terms of priming effects, it appears the largest priming effects observed were for negative words in the cognitive load task, followed by positive words in the same task. The priming effects for the meaning tasks appear smaller than priming effects in the load condition, and appear relatively similar in size across valence. The same data from Figure 1 are presented to highlight priming effects for negatively and positively valenced words for the different task conditions.

In order to determine whether the size of the priming effects differed between the meaning and cognitive load task, a 2 (relatedness) by 2 (task) analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted. This revealed a significant main effect of relatedness (F(1, 64)=115.30, p<.001), suggesting a significant priming effect overall, and a significant interaction effect between task and relatedness (F(1, 64)=48.03, p<.001), with priming effects being greater in the cognitive load condition.

A further two separate 2 (relatedness) by 2 (valence) ANOVAs were conducted to determine whether differences in priming effects were significant between words of a positive and negative valence for both the meaning and cognitive load conditions. For the meaning condition, the analysis revealed a significant main effect of relatedness (F(1, 64)=31.07, p<.001) and valence (F(1, 64)=19.27, p<.001), with RTs for negatively valenced words being faster than for positively valenced words. However, there was no significant interaction between relatedness and valence (F(1, 64)=.44, p=.51), suggesting that priming effects for the meaning conditions were relatively similar across valence. For the cognitive load condition, the analysis revealed significant main effects for both relatedness (F(1, 64)=94.34, p<.001) and valence (F(1, 64)=4.88, p=.03), again revealing RTs for negative trials were faster overall compared to positive trials. In contrast to the meaning task, a significant interaction between relatedness and valence was observed (F(1, 64)=22.06, p<.001), confirming the size of the priming effect for negatively valenced words was greater than that of positively valenced words within this cognitive load task condition.

To examine any potential correlations between priming effects and individual difference variables, the anxiety (STAI) and happiness (OHS) scores were correlated with the size of the priming effect across emotional valence and task condition. While there was an expected negative correlation between anxiety and happiness, (r = -.82, p < .001), none of the correlations of specific interest to the research hypotheses were significant.

Discussion on Processing of Conscious and Unconscious Stimulus

Summary of findings

The research used 65 observants from Melbourne who were English speaking in nature. The topic of the study was to investigate the processing of conscious and unconscious stimulus while developing an argument for the idea that unconscious stimuli and conscious stimulus can have distinct processing and that the unconscious stimulus may not have slower processing to the conscious stimuli, but it may impact the conscious behaviour. Findings of the research indicated that the use of repetition priming following related prime-target pair or unrelated prime-target pair was effective enough to discuss the cognitive load. The study used reaction time as a function of emotional valence, prime relatedness and task condition. Findings from the result indicated that the cognitive load task has a significantly lesser impact over the negative priming. However, it has a greater impact on the positive priming as it increases with the cognitive load. Priming effect was termed as the difference between both the related and unrelated prime-target pairs and it indicated faster reaction times for the load conditions but it was slower for the unrelated trials. The mean priming effect, which was used as a function of word valance and task types were calculated on a standard error +_SE for negative as well as a positive valance. The load had a priming effect of 120 for negative and 60 for positive. The meaning had a priming effect of 20 for the negative valance and 18 for positive. ANOVA was used to study a significant difference in priming effects in the meaning as well as cognitive load conditions. It was done for both positive and negative valence.

Relevance to the literature

Priming is considered as a memory effect in which response to a certain stimulus is a result of past exposure to a stimulus (Bodner & Stalinski, 2008). This technique is generally used to train the memory of a person in positive as well as negative ways. Priming can significantly affect the psychology of memory in a person (Neely & Kahan, 2001). Repetition priming occurs in the case when the response and stimulus are paired repeatedly to each other. This enables the observers to respond quickly and in a certain way to a stimulus in comparison to other observers. Positive priming does not mean happy though but it relates to acceleration of processing, on the other hand, negative priming slows the processing of the brain. Research conducted by Plassmann and Weber (2015) has stated that an increased amount of load on the working memory can lead to negative priming and slower responses on a greater scale which indicated that negative priming effect is greater in the case of distractions and effective control mechanisms.

Limitations and Future Research

The sample size in the research was small which reduced its reliability. Moreover, it was a self-reported study so the participants may have felt biased, judged or uncomfortable. The research indicated that limited research has been conducted on the priming effect so further research on the same subject is recommended.

Conclusion on Processing of Conscious and Unconscious Stimulus

The findings of the research supported the first hypotheses and revealed that the priming effect of negative words is higher in the cognition load task. The second hypothesis was rejected because the results of the study indicated no specific and significant correlations to the hypothesis. The third hypothesis was supported by the results as a priming effect for the meaning conditions were relatively similar across valence. So, it can be said that “unconscious stimuli may not be processed to the same extent as conscious stimuli, but it may still influence the conscious behaviour”. 

References for Processing of Conscious and Unconscious Stimulus

Bodner, G.E., & Stalinski, S.M. (2008). Masked repetition priming and proportion effects under cognitive load. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 6(2), 127-131.

Chow, J., Aimola Davies, A. M., Fuentes, L. J., & Plunkett, K. (2019). The vocabulary spurt predicts the emergence of backward semantic inhibition in 18‐month‐old toddlers. Developmental Science, 22(2), e12754.

Demorest, S. M., Morrison, S. J., Nguyen, V. Q., & Bodnar, E. N. (2016). The influence of contextual cues on cultural bias in music memory. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 33(5), 590-600.

Deutsch, J. A., & Deutsch, D. (1963). Attention: Some theoretical considerations. Psychological Review, 70, 80-90.

Heyman, T., Van Rensbergen, B., Storms, G., Hutchison, K. A., & De Deyne, S. (2015). The influence of working memory load on semantic priming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 41(3), 911-920.

Hills, P., & Argyle, M. (2002). The Oxford happiness questionnaire: A compact scale for the measurement of psychological well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 1073-1082.

Karreman, A., Vingerhoets, A. J., & Bekker, M. H. (2019). Attachment styles and secure base priming in relation to emotional reactivity after frustration induction. Cognition and Emotion, 33(3), 428-441.

Kazanas, S. A., & Altarriba, J. (2016). Emotion word type and affective valence priming at a long stimulus onset asynchrony. Language and Speech, 59(3), 339-352.

Kosson, D. S., Vitacco, M. J., Swogger, M. T., Steuerwald, B. L., & Gacono, C. B. (2015). Emotional experiences of the psychopath. The Clinical and Forensic Assessment of Psychopathy: A Practitioner's Guide, 73.

Merikle, P. M., Smilek, D., & Eastwood, J. D. (2001). Perception without awareness: Perspectives from cognitive psychology. Cognition, 79, 115-134.

Neely, J.H. & Kahan, T.A. (2001). is semantic activation automatic? A critical re-evaluation. In: Roedinger, H.L., Naime, J.S., &Suprenant. A.M. (Eds). The nature of remembering. Essays in honour of Robert G. Crowder. pp 69-93. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Plassmann, H., & Weber, B. (2015). Individual differences in marketing placebo effects: Evidence from brain imaging and behavioral experiments. Journal of Marketing Research, 52(4), 493-510.

Spielberger, C. D., Gorsuch, R. L., Lushene, R., Vagg, P. R., & Jacobs, G. A. (1983). Manual for the state-trait anxiety inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Remember, at the center of any academic work, lies clarity and evidence. Should you need further assistance, do look up to our Psychology Assignment Help

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