As noted in the Introduction, much of the cognitive literature on unconscious information processing in executive control has focused on evidence from visual masked priming paradigms. In this review, we have discussed evidence from several social psychology studies demonstrating that in addition to stimuli
outside of awareness, unconscious information processing can also refer to mental processes
that operate without awareness (see Bargh and Morsella, 2008
). In particular, we have considered converging evidence from the social domain and highlighted both the pervasive and unconscious influences of social factors on behavioral and neural correlates of executive control. These social factors represent common elements of our everyday lives, including social power roles as well as interactions involving social coordination, behavioral mimicry, and interactions with individuals of the opposite sex and other races.
In addition to recognizing that social factors can unintentionally influence executive control, it is important to consider how this may occur. The studies we have discussed in this review suggest some mechanisms. Social information can unintentionally trigger the establishment of task-sets (e.g., Goldfarb et al., 2011
) and pursuit of goals, including those involving self-control (e.g., Ackerman et al., 2009
). These task-sets and goals, established via social means such as reading about another individual or trying to adopt someone's perspective, can then guide behavior in a goal-consistent fashion. Information pertaining to social hierarchies and social power roles can also unconsciously influence executive control abilities, such as active maintenance of task- or goal-relevant information (e.g., Guinote, 2007
; Smith et al., 2008
) and related PFC activity (e.g., Boksem et al., 2009
). As noted by Miller and Cohen (2001
), the establishment and maintenance of goals and subsequent biasing of behavior in line with these goals serves as the principal function of PFC.
Another way in which social information can affect executive control involves the depletion of self-regulatory resources. As suggested by Vohs et al. (2005
); Finkel et al. (2006
); and Dalton et al. (2009
) social interactions proceeding in an inefficient or counter-normative fashion may deplete self-regulatory resources. As a result, this depletion can have an impact on subsequent tasks dependent on these same self-regulatory resources, such as executive control tasks. Work by Richeson and colleagues (e.g., Richeson et al., 2005
) has also shown that interracial interactions may deplete self-regulatory resources, perhaps due to concerns about appearing prejudiced, and lead to subsequent executive control impairments. Furthermore, activity in PFC appears to mediate this relationship (Richeson et al., 2003
The studies discussed in this review have demonstrated several ways in which social factors can influence executive control in an unconscious fashion. However, they also suggest additional questions and avenues for further research. We offer two such avenues here. First, which factors determine whether a social interaction impairs or boosts executive control? Preliminary evidence suggests that interactions involving perspective-taking can lead to facilitation of executive control (Ybarra et al., 2011
). This finding suggests the potential for using perspective-taking manipulations to offset the self-regulatory depletion caused by effortful interactions, such as during a high-maintenance interaction, or when interacting with someone of a different race. Further research is necessary to determine other social factors that can boost executive control. Dalton et al. (2009
) have suggested that behavioral mimicry in the context of close relationships may serve to replenish executive control resources. The extent to which perspective-taking and behavioral mimicry can boost or replenish executive control should be tested across a variety of different social contexts, as this could have important consequences for the successful utilization of executive control and self-regulation in our daily lives. Additionally, further research is needed on the neural correlates of how social interactions affect executive control. Previous neuroimaging studies have largely been unable to investigate the effects of naturalistic social interactions on neural activity due to the constraints of functional neuroimaging methods. However, recent work has introduced novel methods for implementing online, face-to-face social interactions during fMRI scanning (Redcay et al., 2010
), and these methods holds great promise for future work investigating the impact of social interactions on executive control.
Second, what is the duration of the impact of social priming and social interactions on executive control? In the case of the social priming technique, Goldfarb et al. (2011
) found an impact on Stroop performance only in the block immediately following the dyslexia priming manipulation. This suggests that social priming effects are of short duration and may not have as far-reaching consequences as a taxing social interaction. In further support of this idea, evidence from the power priming literature suggests that priming of power constructs yields similar, but less impactful, behavioral consequences compared with the actual possession of power (see Smith and Galinsky, 2010
for a review). The majority of studies employing social interactions have tended to investigate their impact on executive control for tasks immediately following the social interaction. Thus, the duration of these effects requires further study in order to determine the extent of their influence.
Additionally, it is important to note that although social information can unconsciously trigger executive control, this does not mean that all of our behavior is beyond our conscious control (see Suhler and Churchland, 2009
). Rather, it is likely that both consciously and unconsciously processed information can trigger executive control depending on the situation, and that both consciously and unconsciously triggered control work in concert to efficiently guide behavior. Further research is clearly necessary to elucidate the similarities and differences between conscious and unconscious control mechanisms. In addition, further specification of the types of factors that can influence executive control will allow for identification of ways to combat these influences, particularly when they lead to undesirable behavioral consequences (e.g., depletion of self-regulatory resources).
Consideration of the unconscious influence of social factors on executive control holds a great deal of promise for future research. Indeed, based on the findings discussed in this review, it is critical to ask not only whether
social information can unconsciously influence executive control, but also how
these effects occur. In his seminal article on the social function of intellect, Humphrey (1976
) described studying the recovery of vision in a rhesus monkey that had been kept in a cage in the laboratory. Although the monkey's recovery was somewhat limited within the laboratory, she showed a great improvement in spatial vision when she was allowed to spend time outdoors. Humphrey thus notes that “The limits on her recovery had been imposed directly by the limited environment in which she had been living” (1976, p. 308). In a similar fashion, a great deal of experimental psychological research involves testing participants' executive control abilities in isolation within the “cage” of the laboratory. However, in our daily lives, we are nearly always engaged in a social context. In order to better understand executive control processes, we must move beyond only studying participants in the limited social environment of the laboratory, and also consider the influence of social factors present in our everyday lives. Thus, greater consideration of the interplay between social factors and executive control may allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms underlying regulation of human behavior.
Conflict of interest statement
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.