This article is part of the Research Topic Unconscious information processing in executive control


Front. Hum. Neurosci., 26 April 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00105

The pervasive nature of unconscious social information processing in executive control

  • Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

Humans not only have impressive executive abilities, but we are also fundamentally social creatures. In the cognitive neuroscience literature, it has long been assumed that executive control mechanisms, which play a critical role in guiding goal-directed behavior, operate on consciously processed information. Although more recent evidence suggests that unconsciously processed information can also influence executive control, most of this literature has focused on visual masked priming paradigms. However, the social psychological literature has demonstrated that unconscious influences are pervasive, and social information can unintentionally influence a wide variety of behaviors, including some that are likely to require executive abilities. For example, social information can unconsciously influence attention processes, such that simply instructing participants to describe a previous situation in which they had power over someone or someone else had power over them has been shown to unconsciously influence their attentional focus abilities, a key aspect of executive control. In the current review, we consider behavioral and neural findings from a variety of paradigms, including priming of goals and social hierarchical roles, as well as interpersonal interactions, in order to highlight the pervasive nature of social influences on executive control. These findings suggest that social information can play a critical role in executive control, and that this influence often occurs in an unconscious fashion. We conclude by suggesting further avenues of research for investigation of the interplay between social factors and executive control.

Keywords: executive control, self-regulation, prefrontal cortex, visual masked priming paradigm, social priming, social power, behavioral mimicry, impression management

Citation: Prabhakaran R and Gray JR (2012) The pervasive nature of unconscious social information processing in executive control. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:105. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00105

Received: 02 February 2012; Accepted: 10 April 2012;
Published online: 26 April 2012.

Edited by:

Nicola De Pisapia, University of Trento, Italy

Reviewed by:

Luiz Pessoa, Brown University, USA
Pamela K. Smith, University of California, San Diego, USA

Copyright: © 2012 Prabhakaran and Gray. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License, which permits non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited.

*Correspondence: Ranjani Prabhakaran, Department of Psychology, Yale University, Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205, USA. e-mail:

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