Is there a term that captures the idea that incentives work even when people deny their choices have been swayed by them?

For example, an individual amazon book reviewer may deny that a recent improvement in their rankings caused them to spend 10 minutes writing a review instead of 5. They may be honest that they weren't consciously aware of the connection in a single act. But statistically it might (by some well-controlled experiment) be evident there is likely a causative correlation, over time, over many participants.

Or changing scoring models on StackExchange might change behavior more than explainable by conscious decision.

Or a crowded store gets better sales due to social influences.

Of course perverse incentives and competing incentives (social, financial) will complicate, but I want a term to capture the concept that incentives influence choice to a degree more than the participants are aware.

So I'm not asking for argument how much or little this works, but for a well-accepted term for it.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The term is "implicit" $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Mar 16, 2013 at 18:19

1 Answer 1


Annoyingly, it depends what area of the research literature you happen to find yourself in. In the perception literature, the distinction lies between subliminal and supraliminal. In the memory and learning literature, the distinction lies between implicit and explicit. In dual-process decision-making theories, the distinction lies between automatic and controlled. The former terms broadly refer to "unconscious processing" while the latter terms refer to "conscious processing," but I wouldn't say unconscious/conscious is a well-defined distinction.

There is some general cross-overlap, but of these three distinctions and areas, the distinction that sees the most use in the other two areas would have to be explicit/implicit. They differ mostly in what stage of the process in the mind the researcher is interested in: perception, memory or thought. There is, to my knowledge, unfortunately no term which broadly captures all unconscious processing from input to output AND maps to the literature.

If you want the term to map to the literature, I think you'll have to commit to one or another. If it's for a lay audience, "implicit X" is fine, where X is whatever you think best fits the intended meaning.

  • $\begingroup$ Very helpful. What's the noun? Would you talk about implicit incentives? Implicit behavior? Implicit motivation? I gather these adjectives you mention have become part of the technical language in the different areas of literature, and so I'd like to know how the concepts tend to be phrased there. Your favorite (and @Jeff's) has a wide meaning in everyday English. $\endgroup$
    – Bob Stein
    Mar 31, 2013 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ I think the best noun to use is "cognition", and the closest thing I can find so far to the answer I'm ultimately looking for is implicit cognition. Found that using the type-ahead at wikipedia, typing "implicit ..." and wading through the suggestions. I respectfully disagree with your new last paragraph here; either audience would need a specific term, adjective + noun. "Implicit" by itself, or with a noun that's never used in the literature, is too generic to be useful to anyone. $\endgroup$
    – Bob Stein
    Apr 1, 2013 at 1:08
  • $\begingroup$ Automatic activation is starting to look good too. I like your guidance toward those terms (automatic/controlled) with their emphasis on decision making. That is more central to the effects of incentives. $\endgroup$
    – Bob Stein
    Apr 1, 2013 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ Alright, then it sounds like you've found the one you want. Enjoy! $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2013 at 6:23

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