Conscious Attention and Abstraction in Concept Learning

Richard A. Carlson, Don E. Dulany

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Several authors have recently argued that learning may proceed unconsciously, (a) operating on information outside conscious attention or (b) producing unconscious abstractions guiding category judgment. To examine these hypotheses, we presented a complex, ill-defined category structure with diagnostic features either within or outside conscious attention and with three strategy instructions varying in their likelihood of inducing a search for conscious rules. On a subsequent transfer test, subjects reported rules guiding their classifications. Several measures showed that information outside conscious attention did not serve as data for concept learning. Conscious rules predicted accuracy of classification without significant error under all strategy instructions and were more strongly related to accuracy of classification than were alternative predictors of classification. These results indicate the success of a content criterion of consciousness: Hypotheses of unconscious learning are most strongly disconfirmed by evidence that the content of conscious awareness could, given reasonable process assumptions, account for the learning observed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-58
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1985

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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