Effects of Subliminal
of Self and God
of Subliminal Priming
of Self and God on
Self-Attribution of Authorship for Events
Daniel M. Wegner
Three studies investigated how subliminally primed thoughts of an
agent prior to action can aVect ascriptions of authorship for that action. Participants competed against a computer
program to remove words from a computer screen. Participants reported greater feel-ings of authorship when primed
with Wrst person singular pronouns, and lower feelings of authorship when primed with “computer.” We also
investigated whether authorship feelings could be aVected by priming subjects with a supernatural agent (i.e.,
God). Feelings of authorship decreased when participants were primed with God, but only among
© 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
This research was funded in part by NWO-Grant 016.025.030
(“Ver-nieuwingsimpuls”) and in part by NIMH Grant MH-49127. We thank Ri-cardo Alanis, Michael Berkovits, Femi Giwa,
and Job van der Schalk for assistance in conducting these studies.
When you do something, how do you know you’re the one who did it? Normally, this
doesn’t seem like much of a mystery, because you can feel yourself doing things and appreciate the operation of
your physical body. But what happens when the self is not the only agent that might be responsible for the body’s
actions? At times, agents other than the self are very plausible causes for actions, such as when your computer
crashes and it is not clear whether you pressed an inappropriate key or whether the computer is to blame. In
addition, at least for some people, there may be non-self agents present in a mere psychological sense, potential
causal forces that are believed to exist and guide action—agents such as spirits, angels, Satan, God, or
even the inner voices that accompany delusional states. How do people sort out
the causes of their own actions when they believe in such agents? These studies explored the idea that the
attribution of authorship for action to self might be inXuenced by the subliminal priming of particular agents, and
that the inXuence of such priming might depend on the person’s beliefs in the agent.
Attribution of authorship
The feeling that the self is the author of an action is derived in part from basic physiological systems of the
body. One knows one is doing something by virtue of inter-oceptive sensations of the body’s movement ( Craig, 2003)
that occur both before action ( Frith, Blakemore, & Wol- pert, 2000) and after action ( Gandevia & Burke,
1992). Such bodily feedforward and feedback systems are supple-mented by visual and auditory feedback, as we can
often see and hear ourselves act. However, these sensory indica-tors of authorship for action are often overridden
by a variety of social and contextual variables that can drive attributions quite independently of direct sensation
( Weg- ner, 2002; Wegner & Sparrow, 2004). In the case of actions that do not have obvious bodily sensations,
or that are so distant from their bodily wellsprings as to be diYcult to trace, the experience of authoring the
action may depend not on sensation, but on processing causal information and arriving at an attribution judgment (
Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1972; Jones & Davis, 1965; Gilbert, 1997).
An early theory of such attribution proposed by Ziehen (1899) held that thinking of self before action yields the
experience of own agency. He remarked that “ƒwe Wnally come to regard the ego-idea as the cause of our actions
because of its very frequent appearance in the series of ideas preceding each action. It is almost always
represented several times among the ideas preceding the Wnal move-ment. But the idea of the relation of causality
is an empiri-cal element that always appears when two successive ideas are very closely associated” (Ziehen, 1899,
p. 296). The hypothesis that thoughts of self may incline people to inter-pret actions as their own was later noted
by Michotte (1963), and was developed yet more fully in the objective self awareness theory of
responsibility attribution ( Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Duval & Silvia, 2001).
Research on attention and causal attribution has shown that people who are led to attend to themselves become
more likely to attribute responsibility to self for causally ambiguous events ( Duval, Duval, & Neely,
1979; Duval & Wicklund, 1973), although not always in the case of nega-tive events ( FederoV &
Harvey, 1976). More generally, when attention is drawn to any social entity—self, other, or group—that entity
becomes likely to draw attributions of causation and responsibility ( Arkin & Duval, 1975; Lass- iter, Geers,
Munhall, Ploutz-Snyder, & Breitenbecher, 2002; McArthur & Post, 1977; Storms, 1972; Taylor
& Fiske, 1978; Wegner & Giuliano, 1982). This view of attribution suggests why actors more often view
their behavior as caused by situations, whereas observers of those actors view the same behavior as caused by the
actors’ disposi-tions—the difference may occur in part because actors are attending to situations and observers are
attending to the actor ( Jones & Nisbett, 1972).
The attentional view of causal attribution also solves an important problem in how agency judgments are made.
The attention theory suggests that prior thought about an agent or cause creates a frame for cause perception, a
general ten-dency for agency to be ascribed to the attended agent. Such a frame or set can explain why it is that
attributions of agency to self are often very Xuid and perfunctory (e.g., Aarts, Custers, & Wegner,
2005), occurring with a rapidity that suggests automatic processing (e.g., Taylor & Fiske, 1978)
rather than a thorough information search (e.g., Kel-ley, 1967). If every event in the world required a full
analy-sis of possible agents, after all, quick judgments of own agency would seem unlikely. For example, the simple
act of going the kitchen for a midnight snack could throw a per-son into an attributional crisis if one had to
consider the multiple possibilities that self is doing this, or that others present are eliciting the action, or
perhaps even that absent others or supernatural agents such as God are prompting the action. The person would
seldom Wgure out who did it before the snack was all gone. Because people also make rapid authorship judgments not
only for actions but for their own thoughts—and thoughts are only misattributed to non-self agents in
psychopathology or in unusual cir-cumstances ( Frith et al., 2000; Graham & Stephens, 1994)—it seems
there must be a mental system that regu-larly guides attributions of agency toward a current default agent.
Past research on causal attribution for own actions has focused on situational variables that inXuence
attention, such as point of view (e.g., Storms, 1972; Taylor & Fiske, 1978). The default agent for
own action must be deter-mined, however, by mental processes that operate without such sensory guidance—or we would
be mystiWed about who is doing our thinking and behaving each time we awake in the dark of night. The system of
mind underlying the experience of authorship for our own actions seems likely to operate through a cognitive
process that “keeps in mind” a current likely agent for action. This process should be susceptible to associative
priming of information that serves to remind the person of a particular agent. Such priming could even ensue from
subliminal sources, as con-scious attention can be guided readily by unconscious primes (e.g., Dijksterhuis,
2004; Strahan, Spencer, & Zanna, 2002). Self-attributions of authorship may be driven, in short, by an
unconscious authorship processing system (Wegner & Sparrow, 2004) that can be biased regarding attributions to
particular default agents by associative priming.
Such automatic, associative priming will generally have direct eVects on perceived authorship, in that increased
accessibility of an agent will lead to enhanced attribution to that agent. If the self is more accessible, the
possibility that an action is ascribed to self increases. Likewise, if another external agent is accessible,
attributions to the self become less likely. For instance, if the concept of “computer” is primed, a sudden
computer failure during a routine mainte-nance would likely be attributed to the computer itself, rather than to
the technician working it. Both the attention/ attribution model and our authorship processing view are able to
explain such direct effects.
However, an important virtue of the authorship process-ing view is that it makes predictions that do not follow
eas-ily from a simple attention/attribution model. The attention/attribution model predicts inXexibly that
increased attention to or priming of any agent would enhance attribution to that agent, whereas the authorship
processing view opens a second possibility based on the assumption that people always keep in mind a default agent
(often the self): a person might think of another agent alter-natively as a rival for authorship, leading to less
attributed agency to the default agent. For example, priming the con-cept of “God” may decrease experienced
authorship for behavior among believers, because it rivals with the default concept of “self” as an author.
Self versus other agents
The belief that agents other than self might inXuence actions of the body is common in many cultures. Polls
indi-cate that upwards of 95% of people in the USA profess a belief in God or a universal spirit (Bishop, 1999),
and many believers worldwide ascribe authorship to God for all things ( Boyer, 2001). It is common, too, for people
to ascribe their creative insights (“Eureka experiences”) to supernatural agents ( Ghiselin, 1952). Young children
are also often adept at ascribing events to culturally sanctioned imaginary agents of other kinds, such as Santa or
the Tooth Fairy (Woolley, 2000), and some have imaginary friends whom they feel inXuence their actions ( Taylor,
1999). Some individuals with schizophrenia may ascribe actions, thoughts, or voices to imagined agents inside or
outside themselves ( Frith, 1994). And of course, there are a wide range of occult beliefs involving spirit agents,
such as beliefs in trance channeling ( Brown, 1997) and spirit possession ( Bourguignon, 1976). Humans seem to live
in a world in which potentially many non-self agents might potentially be seen as controlling the body ( Guthrie,
It is remarkable that people should be so willing to make attributions to agents that they do not physically
encoun-ter, and who leave little evidence of their actions (or their existence). Guthrie (1993) argues that
the tendency to anthropomorphize is responsible for religious beliefs; we attribute agency to supernatural beings
and develop reli-gious beliefs around these agents. People possess a readi-ness to detect agents ( Baron-Cohen,
1995; Heider, 1958; Heider & Simmel, 1944), an advantage because it allows them to quickly identify
potential threats, mates, and help-ers. Most people with religious beliefs never see the gods or spirits they
believe in. They expect to see the work of super-natural agents in everyday events, and so they do.
There may be a connection between the ability to per-ceive intentional external agents and religious thought (
Barrett, 2000. Boyer (2003) suggests that religious concepts often revolve around intentional agents that one does
not physically encounter, such as ghosts, spirits, and gods, and that this is an extension of the human ability to
run oV-line interactions with imagined agents ( Povinelli & Preuss, 1995; Scott, Baron-Cohen, &
Leslie, 1999). Bering (2002) suggests that people turn to intentional forces as a way of making sense of life
events. Impactful events are often seen as some agent’s attempt to communicate with a person, and to teach that
person important life lessons (e.g., I broke my legs so that I would value life more). Gilbert, Brown, Pinel,
& Wil- son (2000) found that people seek external agents to explain fortunate events. People were found to
ascribe agency to an external force when things worked out in their favor, and to attribute characteristics of
benevolence and insight to that external agent. The agents a person might conceivably hold responsible for an
event, in short, might include not only self and other real people or physical objects—but also could include
The assignment of authorship to agents, both self and non-self, has been viewed in prior theory as an
attribution problem. Spilka, Shaver, & Kirkpatrick, 1985) proposed that the availability of thoughts of
God would inXuence whether believers would make either secular or religious attributions for events. This
hypothesis resembles the atten-tion theory of attribution, in that it suggests that the salience of thoughts of God
should inXuence attributions of agency. Although the hypothesis has been evaluated in some studies, research has
not revealed consistent eVects of availability—Wnding instead a general bias toward attribu-tions to God for
positive as opposed to negative events ( Lupfer, De Paola, Brock, & Clement, 1994). We contend that
attributions to God do not follow directly from mere attention or salience, but from more the complex processes of
authorship processing. It could be that this inconsistency derives from variations in the degree to which God as an
agent is seen as a causal alternative to self as agent. For instance, attributions to God only make sense if the
person making the attributions perceives God as a plausible causal agent. Therefore, believers who are exposed to
thoughts of God might attribute their own actions to an external source because God becomes a salient alternative
cause ( Kelley, 1972), whereas this should not be the case for non-believers.
The study of the attribution of agency to self when peo-ple have been led through subliminal primes to think of
self or of God, then, provides a context for understanding how authorship processing follows from different views
of how internal and external agents interact.
The present research
Our experiments examined the inXuence of subliminal priming of agents on perceptions of the authorship of
action. We designed a paradigm in which the authorship of a large number of simple actions was ambiguous.
Partici-pants competed against a computer program to remove words from the screen faster than the computer did, and
on each trial judged whether they had successfully beat the computer to remove the word. Just before each word was
presented, however, participants were subliminally primed with a word relating to self, another agent, or a control
word. Thus, immediately before the act, the person was thinking about either self or another agent. The initial
expectation was that priming of self-related words would lead to ascription of agency to self, whereas priming of
words suggesting other agents would reduce ascription of agency to self.
It should be noted that we primed agents subliminally for two reasons. First, as said before, we believe
authorship processing relies on the mere accessibility of agents, and does not require conscious awareness.
Subliminal priming has been shown to aVect judgments in a variety of different domains (for a review see
Dijksterhuis, Aarts, & Smith, 2005), including judgments about the self. For example, Dijksterhuis
(2004) investigated how implicit self-esteem could be improved by subliminal association of the self and positive
primes. It was found that when self words were paired subliminally with positive words, participants had higher
implicit self-esteem, as measured by their preference for letters in their own name. Subliminal priming in the
present studies was used as a way of enhancing the accessibility of thoughts relevant to speciWc agents (cf.
Dijksterhuis & Bargh, 2001; Wegner & Smart, 1997). The second reason we used subliminal priming is that
supralim-inal priming may render the task odd for participants. Indeed, participants may become suspicious if they
see different potential agents before each trial.
The experiments began with a focus on natural agents: self (Experiment 1), and the computer (Experiment 2).
Then, we turned to the analysis of subliminal inXuences of priming with thoughts of God. We examined how
sublimi-nal priming of God would impact authorship judgments of those who believed or did not believe in God
Experiment 1: Self-primes
Fifteen undergraduate students (11 women and 4 men) from the Radboud University Nijmegen participated in the
experiment. They received DX. 5 (about 2.5 US dollars) in return.
It was explained that participants had to do a lexical decision task. A series of letter strings would appear on
the screen and for each of these letter strings participants had to decide as quickly as possible whether the
string was a word or a nonword. They were asked to decide by pressing a “word” key (A) or a “nonword” key (6).
Pressing a key removed the letter string from the screen. It was explained to participants that the computer could
remove the letter string before they had responded so an additional task was to beat the computer.
Measures and stimuli
Participants completed 72 lexical decision trials and 12 practice trials. Each trial included a 250 ms premask
(XXXXXX), a 17 ms prime, a 50 ms postmask (XXXXXX), and the target letter string. In half the trials, the target
word was a random letter string (e.g., “gewws”). In the remaining half, the target word was a short, medium, or
high fre-quency, word (bike, chair, etc.). In the experimental Self-prime trials, the prime “ik” (I in Dutch) and
“mij” (me) were each used 18 times. The 36 control primes all con-tained the prime “de” (the). The practice trials
did not have a prime. All primes were evenly divided over the targets so that half of the experimental primes had a
nonword as a target whereas the other half had a word as a target.
The computer was programmed to remove the letter string from the screen after participants had pressed the
word/no word key, or at a maximum word time. This maxi-mum time varied. It was programmed to be 450, 500, 550, 600,
650, or 700 ms, each used on 12 trials and on 2 practice trials. The range of maximum word times varied because it
allowed for more individual difference in mean response time, and in addition it prevented subjects from judging
responsibility just by some timing heuristic for when the word was removed.
As a measure of feeling of authorship, subjects were asked to decide whether it was they themselves or the
com-puter that was responsible for the removal of the letter string following each trial (“Was it you or was it the
com-puter?”). Responses were made on a six-point scale (1 D I’m sure it was me, 2 D I think it was me, 3 D If I
would have to guess I’d say it was me, 4 D If I would have to guess I’d say it was the computer, 5 D I think it was
the computer, 6 D I’m sure it was the computer). The practice trials were presented immediately before the actual
task to give partic-ipants a feel for the task.
Results and discussion
There were no difference in response time for different primes (M D 487 ms). Also, the percentage of trials
where participants did indeed beat the computer (80.9%) did not differ between different primes.
Feelings of authorship
Reported feelings of authorship were recoded so that higher scores indicated greater feelings of own authorship.
The mean overall feeling of authorship was calculated for the word and the nonword trials, and for the experimental
and the control prime. These means were subjected to a within-subjects analysis of variance. Feeling of authorship
was indeed higher after Self-primes (M = 3.83, SD = .68) than after control primes
(M = 3.64, SD = .74), F(1, 14) = 5.02, p < .05, = .21.
Experiment 2: Computer primes
In Experiment 1 authorship ascriptions to the self increased following priming with the self, which provides
evidence that agent-relevant thoughts act as cues in author-ship processing. As a follow-up, we examined whether
feel-ings of authorship could also be inXuenced by thoughts of external agents—one that might also be responsible.
In Experiment 2 we tested whether feelings of authorship might decrease after thoughts of an external agent. As in
Experiment 1, participants performed lexical decision tasks on a computer. Because the competitor in this task was
the computer, we primed subjects with thoughts of the com-puter just before action. We expected that thoughts of
the computer would result in greater attributions of authorship to the computer, and decreased attributions to the
Thirty people (19 women and 11 men) were recruited through advertisements in the Psychology Department at
Harvard University. Volunteers received payment of Wve dollars for participation.
Much of the procedure in Experiment 2 was the same as Experiment 1. Participants were instructed to press the
“word” key (E) when the letter string was a word, and the “not word” key (O) when it was a nonword. These keys were
labeled for participants. Subjects completed a total of 112 lexical decision trials and 4 practice trials. Each
trial included a 250 ms premask (XXXXXX), 15 ms exposure to the prime, 50-ms postmask (XXXXXX), and the target
let-ter string. In half the trials the letter string was a word, in half the trials the letter string was a
nonword. The prime “Computer” was used on 56 trials. Two different control primes were each used in 28 trials; the
word “Broccoli,” and a series of lowercase X’s (“xxxxxx”.) We opted to use low-ercase X’s to maintain the Xickering
eVect that was seen on the other trials. As in Experiment 1, the computer removed the target letter string if the
subject pressed the word/not word key, or at the maximum word time, whichever came Wrst. The maximum word times
were programmed to be 450, 500, 550, 600, 650, 700 or 750 ms, each used on 16 trials. Order of trials was generated
randomly. The target words and nonwords were selected randomly from a list for each trial. As an awareness check,
subjects were asked at the end of the study whether they saw any words appear on the com-puter screen before the
appearance of the target words.
Results and discussion
There were no differences in response time for different primes (M D 500 ms). Also, the percentage of trials
where participants did indeed beat the computer (63.4%) did not differ between different primes. No subjects
reported that they could detect the subliminal primes before the appear-ance of the target words.
Feelings of authorship
Reported feelings of authorship were recoded so that higher scores indicated greater feelings of own authorship.
The mean overall feeling of authorship was calculated for all trials, and for each speciWc prime. There was an
overall difference among the three primes on feelings of authorship, F(2, 28) D 5.13, p < .05, 2 D .27. Ratings
of authorship did not differ between the two control primes, F(1,29) D .62, ns, and so the control trials were
collapsed together. Support-ing our hypothesis, feelings of authorship decreased when subjects were
primed with “Computer” (M = 3.87,
SD = .76) as compared with control primes (M
4.05, 2 = SD = .89, F(1, 29) = 7.89, p < .01, = .21).
Experiment 3: God primes
In Experiment 2 we found that priming thoughts of a competing agent prior to an action decreased attributions to
the self and increased attributions to the competitor. Together with Experiment 1, this provides evidence that
agent-relevant thoughts inXuence authorship processing such that attributions are consistent with the
agent-relevant thoughts one has before action.
In the following experiment, we were interested in whether thoughts of supernatural agents might also aVect
authorship processing. God is an external agent, and so thoughts one has about God before action should decrease
attributions to the self for that action. As argued in the Introduction, our authorship processing view entails
that people will have a default agent accessible (generally self) and priming a poten-tial rival agent will reduce
experienced authorship. It is important to note that this does not necessarily have to coin-cide with explicit
awareness of increased agency for this rival agent. In our computer task, which is the same as in Experi-ments 1
and 2, we will not ask participants whether it was them or God who took the word from the screen. The sug-gestion
of such as explicit attribution to God would be pre-posterous for almost all people. Instead, we ask participants,
as we did in the earlier studies, whether it was them or the computer. Given that the self is the default agent in
the para-digm we used (the agency scores are generally leaning towards the “self” end of the scale) and assuming
that God is seen as a plausible rival to the self (and not to a computer), we predict that priming God will reduce
However, authorship attributions can only be made to agents that are capable of creating the action. If a person
does not believe God to be a capable agent, she will not alter her attributions based on thoughts about God. In
con-clusion, Experiment 3 tested two hypotheses: First, that priming participants with the word “God” would
decrease attributions made to the self. Second, that this eVect is mod-erated by belief in God, with differences in
attributions to the self occurring only among believers.
Fifty-five undergraduate students (41 women and 14 men) from the Radboud University Nijmegen participated in the
experiment. They received DX. 5 (about 2.5 US dol-lars) in return.
Measures and stimuli
The same instructions and procedure from Experiment 1 were used. Participants completed 72 lexical decision
trials and 12 practice trials. In the 36 experimental God prime tri-als, the prime “God” was used. The 36 control
primes all contained the prime “de” (the). The practice trials did not have a prime. All primes were evenly divided
over the tar-gets so that half of the experimental primes had a nonword as a target whereas the other half had a
word as a target.
At the very end of the experimental session we asked participants whether they believed in God. The
experimen-tal session contained other experiments that were adminis-tered between the current experiment the
question about belief in God, so that the question about belief was asked 35–45 min after participants performed
the main task. We simply asked them “Do you believe in God?” and they were requested to either press a “yes” key or
a “no” key. Twenty participants indicated they did believe in God, whereas 35 indicated that they did not.
Results and discussion
There were no differences in response time for different primes (M D 492 ms). Also, the percentage of trials
where participants did indeed beat the computer (80.1%) did not differ between different primes or between
believers and non-believers.
Feelings of authorship
The mean overall feeling of authorship was calculated for the experimental God and the control prime. These
means were subjected to a 2 (belief in God: Yes versus No) £ 2 (prime: God versus Control) mixed analysis of
iance. The main eVect for Belief was signiWcant,
F(1,53) D 4.45, p < .05, 2 D .08, however, this eVect was
qualiWed by the two-way interaction, F(1, 53) D 5.49, p < .05, 2 D .10. As expected, participants indicated less
authorship after being primed with God, but this eVect was only obtained for believers. Compared to authorship
after con-trol primes, believers experienced less authorship after God primes, F(1, 53) D 4.14, p < .05, 2
D .07. Furthermore, for the non-believers the control prime and God prime conditions did not differ on authorship,
F(1, 53) D 1.43 ns. Means are
shown in Table 1.
The results of Experiment 3 supported our predictions. Among believers, people felt decreased authorship when
primed with God. This was not so for non-believers, who were unaVected by the God prime.
It should be noted that we assessed whether participants believed at the end of the experiment. We did this
because we did not want to draw attention to belief in God prior to the computer task in which we subliminally
primed God. However, one could argue that the computer task may have aVected the answers participants gave on the
belief ques-tion. This is unlikely though. First, the priming of God was subliminal and therefore very subtle.
Feelings of authorship as a function of prime and belief in Experiment 3 (standard deviations in
Believers 3.63a (1.30) 3.05b(1.42)
Non-believers 3.72a (1.24) 4.01a(1.03)
Means with different superscripts differ signiffcantly.
were unaware of the prime. Second, we addressed the belief question only after a 35–45 min interval.
The results of these studies provide evidence that sublim-inally primed thoughts about particular agents before
an action impact the ascription of authorship for that action. In Experiment 1, subliminal primes of the self that
were given before an action increased the personal feeling of authorship for that action. In Experiment 2, the
feeling of authorship decreased after subjects were subliminally primed with the computer, an agent also capable of
per-forming the target action. In Experiment 3, we found that feeling of authorship decreased when people were
sublimi-nally primed with God, a supernatural agent who could perform the target action. However, this was only the
case for people who believe in God; non-believers did not differ in their feeling of authorship between primes.
There are several issues that should be addressed in the interpretation of these results. As we mentioned
before, one issue concerns the possibility that the results obtained in Experiments 1 and 2 reXect a semantic
priming eVect ( Neely, 1991) rather than an agent priming eVect. Priming subjects with the word “computer” or the
word “Me” might aVect their preferences for responses that contain these target primes, regardless of their
personal feelings of authorship. However, we obtained evidence for an agent priming eVect in Experiments 3, in
which the experimental prime word “God” was not seen in the measure of author-ship attribution. This shows that
there is more than seman-tic priming at work in these cases.
Another issue with the interpretation of these data is whether our manipulation might have aVected actual
authorship of action, rather than just the feeling of doing. If we impacted actual authorship through these
subliminal primes, making people faster or slower on the lexical deci-sion tasks, it would seem only reasonable
that the partici-pants’ feelings of authorship be adjusted accordingly. However, the primes had no eVect on either
the partici-pants’ response time or actual success at beating the com-puter. This suggests that the feeling of
authorship can be relatively independent of actual authorship in these studies, or at least that there is more to
the feeling of authorship than genuine authorship.
It should be noted that there are potential boundary con-ditions for the eVects we observed. Ambiguity is a
prerequi-site for the eVects to occur. Someone who is fully convinced that a hurricane is caused by God (to punish
a society), will probably not change his mind after being primed with an agent (God or other). However, the
behavior participants performed in our experiments was not only ambiguous in terms of agency, but also relatively
unimportant and neither very positive nor very negative. The eVects we obtained may be attenuated for behaviors
that are very important and con-sequential, at least in part because such behavior is often (though not necessarily
always) not ambiguous. In addition, the degree of positivity or negativity of ambiguous behavior may introduce a
potential bias. We are inclined to attribute positive behavior more to the self, and negative behavior to external
agents (e.g., FederoV & Harvey, 1976). This implies that eVects of agency priming will be attenuated for
extremely positive or negative behavior, because there is less room to maneuver. If very positive behavior leads to
a strong feeling that the self is doing it, activating the self subtly may make little difference. These are
speculations though, and fur-ther research may address such potential moderators related to the kind of behavior
It is interesting to further scrutinize the Wndings of Experiment 3. We found that, among believers, priming God
led to decreased experienced agency. The authorship processing view we propose can explain this Wnding with the
assumption that heightened accessibility of an agents reduces the attribution to the default agent. In concrete
terms, heightened accessibility of God reduced attribution of an action to the self, for believers at least. We
would like to emphasize though, that we used the concept of “God” merely as a highly useful example of an external
agent. The authorship processing view predicts that the eVects can be generalized to other external agents.
The null results found for non-believers on God primes points to the importance of the perceived eYcacy of a
potential agent. It could have been the case that authorship processing is always consistent with any
agent-relevant thoughts before action. For example, if I think about my Aunt Jean in Colorado before I bowl a
strike in Connecti-cut, I could think she had done it, or if I look in the mirror before Ruud van Nistelrooij
scores for Holland in the World Cup Soccer, I could think I had done it. Such attri-butions would not only be
wrong, but completely absurd. Agent-relevant thoughts that occur before action should impact authorship processing
only if that agent is perceived to be capable of that action. Thus, thinking about myself before a winning goal
could increase attributions to myself if I am a player in the game, but not if I am watching it on television. For
the same reason, people who did not believe in God were not impacted by the God primes, because God was not
believed to be an agent.
The role of perceived agent eYcacy could be examined in future studies. For example, if we had asked subjects
about their attitudes on the omnipotence of God, we might have found that the eVects were mediated by how powerful
God was believed to be. In a similar vein, self-primes should have less authorship in those who have lower
self-esteem, because these people should have less conWdence in their own abilities. In fact, recent evidence
points at this possibil-ity. Self-primes led to lower rather than higher feelings of agency among dysphoric
participants ( Aarts, Wegner, & Dijksterhuis, 2006).
In addition to these general beliefs about the eYcacy of various agents, a person may have a general tendency to
per-ceive a particular agent as the most likely author, across many situations. For example, a person who had
strong beliefs in God and His omnipotence could be more likely to
judge Him to be responsible for actions (even in the absence of our subliminal primes). It seems likely that all
people have some sort of agent framing that is their baseline in making authorship attributions. If the cues used
in authorship pro-cessing are shortcuts to making these judgments, then agent framing is the map we use to draw
In activities that one is directly involved, (e.g., playing a soccer game), the default agent frame may be the
self. Research on locus of control has shown that people vary in the extent to which they perceive actions to be
within their control, and the extent to which they are willing to make internal attributions for an outcome
(Rotter, 1966; Seligman, 1975). Indeed, the results from the present studies suggest that most people have a
general tendency to attribute author-ship to the self when the self may be implicated; for all primes in all
studies, attributions of authorship leaned more toward the self than the computer. However, the self is only one
kind of agent frame that a person could use. The plane crash in Queens (NY) in November 2001 and the blackout in
August 2003 that aVected 50 million people in the United States and Canada had many people immediately thinking
that terror-ists had struck again. Many forms of paranoia also involve some agent frame, such as suspicions of
government conspir-acy or delusions of alien inXuence.
Agent frames may vary between people, but they are only a baseline for authorship processing. If such cues
become more frequent over time, we could expect that the agent frame might shift to a different baseline. Several
per-sonal failures can make a person less prone to attribute authorship to the self, and several successes could
promote the tendency to attribute agency to the self. Evidence from this study points to the temporary malleability
of those agent frames by external cues and new information, in par-ticular that they are inXuenced by
agent-relevant thoughts, and are consistent with those thoughts.
The authorship of an action is not always clear, but sev-eral kinds of cues aid a person in judging who is
responsi-ble. In the present research, subliminal primes of the self before an action increased feelings of
personal authorship for that action, subliminal primes of the competitor (com-puter) decreased feelings of own
authorship, whereas sub-liminal priming of the inapplicable term Broccoli left felt authorship unaVected. When we
extended the investigation to include supernatural agency, we found that subliminal primes of God decreased
feelings of personal authorship, as had primes of the computer. However, this eVect appeared only for those who
believe in God. This is evidence that authorship attributions are inXuenced by agent-relevant thoughts, and are
consistent with those thoughts, and that agent-relevant thoughts that a person has prior to action are one cue that
is used during authorship processing. Gen-uine authorship for an action may not always be clear, so we rely on our
thoughts as clues to discerning the most likely actor.
Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Wegner, D. M. (2005). On the inference of per-sonal authorship: Enhancing
experienced agency by priming eVect information. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 439–458.
Aarts, H., Wegner, D. M., & Dijksterhuis (2006). On the feeling of doing: Dysphoria and the implicit
modulation of authorship ascription.
Behavior Research and Therapy, 44, 1621–1627.
Arkin, R. M., & Duval, S. (1975). Focus of attention and causal attributions of actors and observers.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 11, 427–438.
Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness. MIT Press.
Barrett, J. L. (2000). Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4,
Bering, J. (2002). The existential theory of mind. Review of General Psy-chology, 6, 3–24.
Bishop, G. (1999). The polls-trend: Americans’ belief in God. Public Opin-ion Quarterly, 63, 421–434.
Bourguignon, E. (1976). Possession. San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp. Boyer, P. (2001). Religion explained.
New York: Basic Books.
Boyer, P. (2003). Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences,
Brown, M. F. (1997). The channeling zone. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni-versity Press.
Craig, A. D. (2003). Interoception: The sense of the physiological condi-tion of the body. Current Opinion in
Neurobiology, 13, 500–505.
Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). I like myself but I don’t know why: Enhancing implicit elf-esteem by subliminal evaluative
conditioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 345–355.
Dijksterhuis, A., Aarts, H., & Smith, P. K. (2005). The power of the sublim-inal: On subliminal persuasion
and other potential applications. In R. Hassin, J. S. Uleman, & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The new unconscious (pp.
77–106). New York: Oxford University Press.
Dijksterhuis, A., & Bargh, J. A. (2001). The perception-behavior express-way: The automatic eVects of social
perception on social behavior. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 33, pp.
1–40). San Diego: Academic Press.
Duval, S., Duval, V. H., & Neely, R. (1979). Self-focus, felt responsibility, and helping behavior. Journal
of Personality & Social Psychology, 37, 1769–1778.
Duval, T. S., & Silvia, P. J. (2001). Self-awareness and causal attribution: A dual-systems theory. Boston:
Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self awareness. New York: Academic Press.
Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1973). EVects of objective self-awareness on attri-bution of causality.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9, 17–31.
FederoV, N. A., & Harvey, J. H. (1976). Focus of attention, self-esteem, and the attribution of causality.
Journal of Research in Personality, 10, 336–345.
Frith, C. (1994). Theory of mind in schizophrenia. In A. S. David & C. J. Cutting (Eds.), The
neuropsychology of schizophrenia (pp. 147–161). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Frith, C., Blakemore, S. J., & Wolpert, D. M. (2000). Abnormalities in the awareness and control of action.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, 355, 1771–1788.
Gandevia, S., & Burke, D. (1992). Does the nervous system depend on kin-esthetic information to control
natural limb movements? Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 15, 614–632.
Ghiselin, B. (1952). The creative process. New York: The New American Library.
Gilbert, D. T. (1997). Ordinary personology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), New York:
Gilbert, D., Brown, R., Pinel, E., & Wilson, T. (2000). The illusion of exter-nal agency. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 690–700.
Graham, G., & Stephens, G. L. (1994). Mind and mine. In G. Graham & G. L. Stephens (Eds.), Philosophical
psychology (pp. 91–109). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Guthrie, S. E. (1993). Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley. Heider, F., & Simmel, M.
(1944). An experimental study of apparent
behavior. American Journal of Psychology, 57, 243–259.
Jones, E. E., & Davis, K. E. (1965). From acts to dispositions: The attribu-tion process in person
perception. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 219–266). New York:
Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1972). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of
behavior. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.),
Attribution: Per-ceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 79–94). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.
Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on
Motivation (Vol. 15, pp. 192–238). Lin-coln: University of Nebraska Press.
Kelley, H. H. (1972). Causal schemata and the attribution process. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley,
R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.),
Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 151–174). NY: Wiley. Lassiter, G. D., Geers, A. L., Munhall,
P. J., Ploutz-Snyder, R. J., & Bre-
itenbecher, D. L. (2002). Illusory causation: why it occurs. Psychologi-cal Science, 13, 299–305.
Lupfer, M. B., De Paola, S. J., Brock, K. F., & Clement, L. (1994). Making secular and religious
attributions: the availability hypothesis revisited.
Journal for the ScientiWc Study of Religion, 33, 162–171.
McArthur, L. Z., & Post, D. L. (1977). Figural emphasis and person per-ception. Journal of Experimental
Social Psychology, 13, 520–535.
Michotte, A. (1963). The perception of causality (T. R. Miles & E. Miles, Trans.), New York: Basic Books.
Neely, J. H. (1991). Semantic priming eVects in visual word recognition: a selective review of current Wndings
and theories. In D. Besner & G. Humphreys (Eds.), Basic processes in reading: Visual word recognition
(pp. 264–336). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Povinelli, D. J., & Preuss, T. M. (1995). Theory of mind: evolutionary his-tory of a cognitive
specialization. Trends in Neurosciences, 18, 418–424.
Scott, F. J., Baron-Cohen, S., & Leslie, A. (1999). ‘If pigs could Xy’: a test of counterfactual reasoning
and pretence in children with autism. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 17, 349–362.
Spilka, B., Shaver, P., & Kirkpatrick, L. A. (1985). A general attribution theory for the psychology of
religion. Journal for the ScientiWc Study of Religion, 24, 1–20.
Storms, M. D. (1972). Videotape and the attribution process: Changing actors’ and observers’ point of view.
Dissertation Abstracts Interna-tional, 32, 7088–7089.
Strahan, E. J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Subliminal priming and persuasion: Striking while the
iron is hot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 556–568.
Taylor, M. (1999). Imaginary companions and the children who create them. New York: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, S. E., & Fiske, S. T. (1978). Salience, attention, and attribution: Top of the head phenomena. In L.
Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 11, pp. 249–288). New York: Academic Press.
Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Wegner, D. M., & Giuliano,
T. (1982). The forms of social awareness. In W. J. Ickes & E. S. Knowles (Eds.), Personality, roles, and social
ior (pp. 165–198). New York: Springer.
Wegner, D. M., & Smart, L. (1997). Deep cognitive activation: a new approach to the unconscious. Journal of
Consulting and Clinical Psy-chology, 65, 984–995.
Wegner, D. M., & Sparrow, B. (2004). Authorship processing. In M. Gaz-zaniga (Ed.), The Cognitive
Neurosciences (3rd ed., pp. 1201–1209). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Woolley, J. D. (2000). The development of beliefs about direct mental-physical causality in imagination, magic,
and religion. In K. S. Rosen-gren & C. N. Johnson (Eds.), Imagining the impossible: Magical, scien-tiWc, and
religious thinking in children (pp. 99–129). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ziehen, T. (1899). Introduction to physiological psychology. New York: Macmillan.
Copyright and Other Protection. The Site and much of the
text, images, graphics, information and other content of the Site (collectively, the “Content”) are protected by
copyright, trademark and other laws. We or others own the copyright and other rights in the Site and the
Content. Much of the Research Content consists of articles and other
scholarly writings posted by authors and
researchers according to their understanding of their rights in that
Some of the Posted Material consists of scholarly articles
deposited under a Harvard Open Access Policy (the “Open Access Policy Articles” or “OAP Articles”). Subject to the
other provisions of these Terms and Conditions, you may use,
reproduce, distribute, and display the OAP Articles for:
a. personal study;
b. teaching (including distribution of copies to students and
use in coursepacks and courseware programs);
c. research and scholarship (including computational research
uses such as data-mining and text-mining); and
d. provision of value-added services (including full-text
searching, cross-referencing, and citation extraction);
provided in each case that:
i. you will not sell or charge for any OAP Article (whether
or not any profit is involved) and will not sell advertising on the same page as any OAP Article;
ii. if you make an OAP Article available to others, you will
notice included on the original;
iii. if you make an OAP Article available on-line, you will
use reasonable efforts both to cite to the publisher’s definitive version of the article if it has been published,
and to provide a link to the publisher’s version if it is available on-line;
iv. you may not use a facsimile of the published version of
an article under these open access terms, unless the publisher so permits and that version has been made available
as an OAP Article on the Site;
v. you will not make any translation, adaptation or other
derivative work of an OAP Article, except that, as reasonably necessary in order to carry out a permitted use, you
may include the article in a collection or database, may change the technical format of the article, and may use
excerpts of the article for teaching or other permitted purposes, so long as, in each case, (A) your use of the
OAP Articles, (B) you do not misrepresent the substance of the article, and (C) your derivative of the article
includes a citation, hyperlink, or similar reference to the original article and appropriately identifies the
nature of the derivative work (e.g., “abridged from_____”); and
vi. you may not sublicense or otherwise transfer your rights
in effect from time to time.
If you have an article, report or research paper that you
understand or believe to be in violation of copyright please
contact us and we will remove it immediately while we investigate the circumstance.
This research is provided to interested parties who wish to broaden their understanding of subliminal priming
and all copyrights remain with the original authors. This page is provided in good faith with the
intention of promoting the studies and authors involved. If any author or copyright details are wrong or
need updating please contact us.