Classical theories of automaticity assume that automatic processes elicited by unconscious stimuli are autonomous and independent of higher-level cognitive influences. In contrast to these classical conceptions, we argue that automatic processing depends on attentional amplification of task-congruent processing pathways and propose an attentional sensitization model of unconscious visual processing: According to this model, unconscious visual processing is automatic in the sense that it is initiated without deliberate intention. However, unconscious visual processing is susceptible to attentional top-down control and is only elicited if the cognitive system is configured accordingly. In this article, we describe our attentional sensitization model and review recent evidence demonstrating attentional influences on subliminal priming, a prototypical example of an automatic process. We show that subliminal priming (a) depends on attentional resources, (b) is susceptible to stimulus expectations, (c) is influenced by action intentions, and (d) is modulated by task sets. These data suggest that attention enhances or attenuates unconscious visual processes in congruency with attentional task representations similar to conscious perception. We argue that seemingly paradoxical, hitherto unexplained findings regarding the automaticity of the underlying processes in many cognitive domains can be easily accommodated by our attentional sensitization model. We conclude this review with a discussion of future research questions regar-ding the nature of attentional control of unconscious visual processing.
Keywords: automatic processes, unconscious visual processing, attentional control, semantic priming, visuo-motor priming, subliminal perception, consciousness