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Daniel M. Wegner (born 1948)[1] is an American social psychologist. He is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is known for applying experimental psychology to the topics of mental control (for example ironic process theory) and conscious will,[1][2] and for originating the study of transactive memory and action identification. In The Illusion of Conscious Will and other works, he argued controversially that the human sense of free will is an illusion.


Wegner was born in Calgary Alberta Canada.[1] He enrolled in a physics degree at Michigan State University but changed to psychology, going on to an M.A. and then a PhD. After gaining his doctorate in 1974, he spent sixteen years teaching at Trinity University, becoming a full Professor in 1985. From 1990 to 2000, he researched and taught at the University of Virginia, after which he joined the faculty at Harvard University.[3]


Ironic process theory[]

Wegner and colleagues performed a series of experiments in which people tried to suppress thoughts, 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.[4][5] Wegner found that the ironic effect is stronger when people are stressed or depressed.[6]

Free will[]

Wegner has conducted a series of experiments on free will in which people experience an illusion of control, feeling that their will shapes events which are actually determined by someone else.[1] 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"[7] and that this illusion of mental causation is "the mind's best trick".[8] 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.[9]

Apparent mental causation[]

Wegner argues that the feeling of intention is something attributed "after the fact" according to three principles: consistency, exclusivity, and priority.[10] 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.

He does not claim that conscious thought cannot in principle cause action, merely that any connection between conscious thought and action should be determined by scientific enquiry, and not by unreliable introspection and feelings.[8]

Transactive memory[]

Main article: 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.[11] Transactive memory suggests an analysis not only of how couples and families in close relationships coordinate memory and tasks at home, but how teams, larger groups and organizations come to develop a "group mind",[11] 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 containing information regarding the different teammate's domains of expertise.[12] Just as the individual's metamemory allows him to be aware of what information is available for retrieval, so does the transactive memory system provide teammates with information regarding the knowledge they have access to within the team.[13] 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. (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.

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Blackmore, Susan J. (15 November 2005). "Daniel Wegner" Conversations on consciousness, 245–257, Oxford University Press. URL accessed 21 March 2011.
  2. "More than good intentions: Holding fast to faith in free will", The New York Times 31 December 2002.
  3. Profile of Dan Wegner, Institute of Psychology, University of Freiburg
  4. (16 October 2009) Social Psychology and Human Nature, Cengage Learning. URL accessed 21 March 2011.
  5. Schacter, Daniel L. (1996). Searching for memory: the brain, the mind, and the past, Basic Books. URL accessed 21 March 2011.
  6. Pennebaker, James W. (1997). Opening up: the healing power of expressing emotions, 59–, Guilford Press. URL accessed 21 March 2011.
  7. Nadelhoffer, Thomas (11 June 2010). Moral Psychology: Historical and Contemporary Readings, John Wiley and Sons. URL accessed 21 March 2011.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Wegner, Daniel M. (2003). The mind’s best trick: how we experience conscious will. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 65-69.
  9. (10 December 2007) The Undermining of Beliefs in the Autonomy and Rationality of Consumers, Routledge. URL accessed 21 March 2011.
  10. Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54, 480-492.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Wegner, D. M., Giuliano, T., & Hertel, P. (1985). Cognitive interdependence in close relationships. In W. J. Ickes (Ed.), Compatible and incompatible relationships (pp. 253–276). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  12. Wegner, D. M. (1995). A computer network model of human transactive memory. Social Cognition, 13, 319–339.
  13. Wegner, D. M. (1986). Transactive memory: A contemporary analysis of the group mind. In B.Mullen & G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Theories of group behavior (pp. 185–205). New York: Springer-Verlag

External links[]

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