It is well accepted in the subliminal priming literature that task-level properties modulate nonconscious processes. For example, in tasks with a limited number of targets, subliminal priming effects are limited to primes that are physically similar to the targets. In contrast, when a large number of targets are used, subliminal priming effects are observed for primes that share a semantic (but not necessarily physical) relationship with the target. Findings such as these have led researchers to conclude that task-level properties can direct nonconscious processes to be deployed exclusively over central (semantic) or peripheral (physically specified) representations.
We find distinct patterns of masked priming for “novel” and “repeated” primes within a single task context. Novel primes never appear as targets and thus are not seen consciously in the experiment. Repeated primes do appear as targets, thereby lending themselves to the establishment of peripheral stimulus-response mappings. If the source of the masked priming effect were exclusively central or
peripheral, then both novel and repeated primes should yield similar patterns of priming. In contrast, we find that both novel and repeated primes produce robust, yet distinct, patterns of priming.
Our findings indicate that nonconsciously elicited cognitive processes can be flexibly deployed over both central and peripheral representations within a single task context. While we agree that task level properties can influence nonconscious processes, our findings sharply constrain the extent of this influence. Specifically, our findings are inconsistent with extant accounts which hold that the influence of task-level properties is strong enough to restrict the deployment of nonconsciously elicited cognitive processes to a single type of representation (i.e. central or peripheral).