Is Priming Necessarily a Threat to Autonomy?

As reviewed by David Nicholson in a previous post, I recently had the privilege of discussing Felsen and Reiner’s “How the neuroscience of decision making informs our conception of autonomy” at a recent Neuroethics Program journal club meeting. The discussion was fruitful and insightful, but as mentioned by David in the aforementioned review post, I think there is a lot more to be said. So, here I am hoping to spark another conversation about Felsen and Reiner’s take on autonomy and neuroscience.

First let me begin be commending Felsen and Reiner for taking on such an ambitious project. They are obviously not the first (or even among the first few) to attempt to outline the relation between the evidence from neuroscience and our capacities for autonomous action (and related capacities such as the capacity to act freely), but they have, without a doubt, taken a much more rigorous approach to the subject matter than most. While many scientists who enter this debate take all measures to stay clear of trying to account for the philosophical conception(s) of autonomy (and related concepts like free will), Felsen and Reiner embrace the challenge of trying to give proper treatment to the relation between a philosophical rigorous account of autonomy and the evidence from neuroscience.

While admitting that the philosophical debates on autonomy are nuanced and ongoing, Felsen and Reiner identify three broad principles that, in their view, are relatively standard to most philosophical accounts of autonomy. According to Felsen and Reiner, in order for a decision to be autonomous it must be:
  1. Consistent with the individual's higher-order desires.
  2. A product of rational processes.
  3. Not unduly influenced by external factors beyond the individual's control.
Felsen and Reiner go on to offer evidence for or against each of these requirements of autonomy, finally concluding that the “neuroscience of decision making is consistent with the standard model of autonomy” but only after some qualifications to the standard model. The requirement that they see most difficult to meet – and is the requirement that they see as most likely needing revision – is the requirement of not being unduly influenced by external factors.

Felson and Reiner correctly note that, in order to act autonomously, we do not need to be completely free from external influences. We just need to be free from undue influences beyond the control of the individual. Felson and Reiner offer priming (and priming-like effects) as what they take to be an uncontroversial example of the sorts of external influences that should be seen as “undue” and “beyond the control of the individual.” At first glance, priming seems to be the perfect example of an autonomy-compromising phenomenon. After all, priming occurs automatically, priming occurs unconsciously, and priming is generally thought to be beyond an individual’s control. However, I want to suggest that priming is not necessarily a threat to autonomy. In fact, I want to suggest something (seemingly) even more radical: Priming can often help facilitate our ability to act autonomously.

To appreciate this claim, let us first consider the fact that we are constantly bombarded with a large array of information from the environment. At any given moment, we are only consciously aware of a minutia of the information that our systems are processing. This means that much of the information that our systems are processing is being processed unconsciously and automatically. All this information – including, if not especially, the unconscious and automatically processed information – provides cues regarding how to proceed at any given moment. These cues effectively “prime” us toward the selection of certain behaviors over other behaviors. The priming provided by the automatically and unconsciously processed cues contribute to making us much more effective and efficient at navigating our world (including making us much more effective and efficient at making goal-directed decisions). Priming provides efficiency (and often effectiveness) in our decision-making that may not otherwise be obtainable. And I think some degree of efficiency and effectiveness is required to be an autonomous agent. (Imagine being burdened by the constant requirement of being able to rely only on consciously processed information in order to make decisions. It would be paralyzing, not liberating.) So, in this sense, priming (and priming-like effects) may actually be able to help facilitate autonomous actions.

Of course, not all priming is equal. Priming that pushes us toward the selection of behaviors that are not consistent with our higher-order desires would be an example of priming undermining autonomy. But even in this case, it is not the priming per se that poses a problem for autonomy; rather it is the fact that there is inconsistency between the effects of the priming and our higher-order desires. These sorts of autonomy-compromising conditions are already noted as autonomy-compromising via Felsen and Reiner’s first requirement of autonomy. So, priming only really becomes an “undue” external influence when it violates one of the other requirements of autonomy, not because priming itself is necessarily an “undue” external influence.

Want to cite this post?
Shepard, J. (2012). Is Priming Necessarily a Threat to Autonomy? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

--Jason Shepard
Emory Neuroethics Scholars Program Fellow

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