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Daniel Wegner

Daniel Wegner

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Daniel M. Wegner is an American social psychologist. He is a professor of psychology at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Association for the Advancement of Science
The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization with the stated goals of promoting cooperation among scientists, defending scientific freedom, encouraging scientific responsibility, and supporting scientific education and science outreach for the...

. He is known for applying experimental psychology
Experimental psychology
Experimental psychology is a methodological approach, rather than a subject, and encompasses varied fields within psychology. Experimental psychologists have traditionally conducted research, published articles, and taught classes on neuroscience, developmental psychology, sensation, perception,...

 to the topics of mental control (for example ironic process theory
Ironic Process Theory
Ironic processing is the psychological process whereby an individual's deliberate attempts to suppress or avoid certain thoughts render those thoughts more persistent.-Mechanisms:...

) and conscious will, and for originating the study of transactive memory
Transactive memory
Transactive memory is a psychological hypothesis first proposed by Daniel Wegner in 1985 as a response to earlier theories of "group mind" such as groupthink. A transactive memory system is a system through which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge...

 and action identification. In The Illusion of Conscious Will and other works, he argued controversially that the human sense of free will
Free will
"To make my own decisions whether I am successful or not due to uncontrollable forces" -Troy MorrisonA pragmatic definition of free willFree will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. The existence of free will and its exact nature and definition have long...

 is an illusion.


Wegner was born in Canada. He enrolled in a physics degree at Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Michigan State University is a public research university in East Lansing, Michigan, USA. Founded in 1855, it was the pioneer land-grant institution and served as a model for future land-grant colleges in the United States under the 1862 Morrill Act.MSU pioneered the studies of packaging,...

 but changed to psychology, going on to an M.A.
Master of Arts (postgraduate)
A Master of Arts from the Latin Magister Artium, is a type of Master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. The M.A. is usually contrasted with the M.S. or M.Sc. degrees...

 and then a PhD
PHD may refer to:*Ph.D., a doctorate of philosophy*Ph.D. , a 1980s British group*PHD finger, a protein sequence*PHD Mountain Software, an outdoor clothing and equipment company*PhD Docbook renderer, an XML renderer...

. After gaining his doctorate in 1974, he spent fifteen years teaching at Trinity University
Trinity University (Texas)
Trinity University is a private, independent, primarily undergraduate, university in San Antonio, Texas. Its campus is located in the Monte Vista Historic District and adjacent to Brackenridge Park....

, becoming a full Professor in 1985. From 1990 to 2000, he researched and taught at the University of Virginia
University of Virginia
The University of Virginia is a public research university located in Charlottesville, Virginia, United States, founded by Thomas Jefferson...

, after which he joined the faculty at Harvard University.

Ironic process theory

Wegner and colleagues performed a series of experiments in which people tried to suppress thoughts
Thought suppression
Thought suppression is the process of deliberately trying to stop thinking about certain thoughts . It is often associated with obsessive–compulsive disorder, in which a sufferer will repeatedly attempt to prevent or "neutralize" intrusive distressing thoughts centered around one or more obsessions...

, for example by attempting not to think of a white bear. That work revealed that attempting not to think of a topic often backfires, resulting in high rates of intrusive thoughts about the topic. Wegner coined the term "ironic mental processes" for this effect, which is also known more commonly as the "white bear phenomenon". The effect contributes to various psychological challenges and disorders. Smokers who try not to think about cigarettes find it harder to give up. People who suppress thoughts that may cause an anxiety reaction often make those thoughts more intrusive. Wegner found that the ironic effect is stronger when people are stressed
Stress (biology)
Stress is a term in psychology and biology, borrowed from physics and engineering and first used in the biological context in the 1930s, which has in more recent decades become commonly used in popular parlance...

 or depressed
Depression (mood)
Depression is a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person's thoughts, behaviour, feelings and physical well-being. Depressed people may feel sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, helpless, worthless, guilty, irritable, or restless...


Free will

Wegner has conducted a series of experiments in which people experience an illusion of control
Illusion of control
The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events, for instance to feel that they control outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over. The effect was named by psychologist Ellen Langer and has been replicated in many different contexts. It...

, feeling that their will shapes events which are actually determined by someone else. He has argued controversially that the ease with which this illusion can be created shows that the everyday feeling of conscious will is an illusion or a "construction" and that this illusion of mental causation is "the mind's best trick". He argues that, although people may feel that conscious intentions drive much of their behavior, in reality both behavior and intentions are the product of other, unconscious mental processes.

Apparent mental causation

Wegner argues that the feeling of intention is something attributed "after the fact" according to three principles: consistency, exclusivity, and priority. The principle of consistency states that if the content of one's thoughts is relevant to one's action, then a feeling of control will occur. The exclusivity principle holds that one must not believe there to be an outside influence or cause to feel as though an action was intended. Finally, the priority principle requires the thought to occur right before the action to produce the illusion of free will.

Transactive memory

The concept of transactive memory was proposed by Wegner in 1985. A transactive memory system is a system through which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge. Transactive memory suggests an analysis not only of how couples
thumb|right|1st edition Couples is a 1968 novel by American author John Updike.-Summary:The novel focuses on a promiscuous circle of ten couples in the small Massachusetts town of Tarbox...

 and families in close relationships coordinate memory and tasks at home, but how teams
Teams is the plural form of team.TEAMS may also refer to:*TEAMS , a competition sponsored by JETS*TEAMS , an Kenyan initiative to link the country to the rest of the world through a submarine fibre optic cable....

, larger groups and organizations come to develop a "group mind
Group mind
Group mind can mean:* Collective intelligence, a concept in sociology and philosophy* Egregore is a phenomenon in occultism which has been described as group mind.* Group mind , a type of collective consciousness...

", a memory system that is more complex and potentially more effective than that of any of the individuals that comprise it.

According to Wegner, a transactive memory system consists of the knowledge stored in each individual's memory combined with metamemory
Metamemory, one component of metacognition, is about one’s memory capabilities and strategies that can aid memory, as well as the processes involved in memory self-monitoring. This self-awareness of memory has important implications for how people learn and use memories...

 containing information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...

 regarding the different teammate's domains of expertise. Just as the individual's metamemory allows him to be aware of what information is available for retrieval
Information retrieval
Information retrieval is the area of study concerned with searching for documents, for information within documents, and for metadata about documents, as well as that of searching structured storage, relational databases, and the World Wide Web...

, so does the transactive memory system provide teammates with information regarding the knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

they have access to within the team. Group members learn who knowledge experts are and how to access expertise through communicative processes. In this way, a transactive memory system can provide the group members with more and better knowledge than any individual could access on his or her own.


  • Schacter, D. S., Gilbert, D. T., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Psychology: 2nd Edition. New York: Worth.
  • Schacter, D. S., Gilbert, D. T., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). Psychology. New York: Worth.
  • Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Pennebaker, J. W. (Eds.) (1993). Handbook of mental control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin. German translation by Ernst Kabel Verlag, 1992. 1994 Edition, New York: Guilford Press.
  • Vallacher, R. R. & Wegner, D. M. (1985). A theory of action identification. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Vallacher, R. R. (Eds.). (1980). The self in social psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Vallacher, R. R. (1977). Implicit psychology: An introduction to social cognition. New York: Oxford University Press. Japanese translation by Sogensha, 1988. ISBN 0-1950-2229-7

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