Regressive research: The pitfalls of post hoc data selection in the study of unconscious mental processes

Psychon Bull Rev. 2017 Jun;24(3):752-775. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1170-y.


Many studies of unconscious processing involve comparing a performance measure (e.g., some assessment of perception or memory) with an awareness measure (such as a verbal report or a forced-choice response) taken either concurrently or separately. Unconscious processing is inferred when above-chance performance is combined with null awareness. Often, however, aggregate awareness is better than chance, and data analysis therefore employs a form of extreme group analysis focusing post hoc on participants, trials, or items where awareness is absent or at chance. The pitfalls of this analytic approach are described with particular reference to recent research on implicit learning and subliminal perception. Because of regression to the mean, the approach can mislead researchers into erroneous conclusions concerning unconscious influences on behavior. Recommendations are made about future use of post hoc selection in research on unconscious cognition.

Keywords: Error; Implicit; Regression to the mean; Subliminal; Unconscious.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Awareness
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Cognition*
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Memory
  • Mental Processes*
  • Perception
  • Regression Analysis
  • Research Design
  • Subliminal Stimulation*
  • Unconscious, Psychology*