The limits of unconscious semantic processing


Psychological Science


April, 2020


Andrea Nadalini, Roberto Bottini, Daniel Casasanto and Davide Crepaldi

Do supraliminal and subliminal priming capture different facets of words’ semantic representations? We used metaphorical priming between space and time as a test bed for this question. While people conceptualize time along the lateral and sagittal axes, only the latter mapping comes up in language (the future is in front of you, not to your right). We assessed facilitation on temporal target words by lateral (left, right) and sagittal (back, front) primes, in masked and overt conditions. Supraliminally, we observe similar sagittal and lateral priming, while the masked effect is stronger on the sagittal axis, and weak to non–existent on the lateral one. These results are observed in an original and a replication studies; and are strongly confirmed by a Bayesian meta–analysis of the two. We conclude that unconscious word processing is limited to linguistically–encoded information, while consciousness may be needed to fully activate semantic representations.