Collective Unconscious: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that the concept of the collective unconscious was first proposed by Carl Jung? In this lesson, we will learn about the collective unconscious through examples.


Collective unconscious refers to the part of the human psyche that contains information that has been inherited from our ancestors and is commonly shared among all humans. The concept of the collective unconscious was first developed by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. The unconscious is the part of the mind that is made up of ideas, concepts, and memories that we are not consciously aware of. According to Jung, there is a part of the unconscious mind that all human beings share, which he called the collective unconscious. Collective unconscious is not dependent upon our personal experiences, but rather is inherited from prior generations of humans. We can think of the collective unconscious as wisdom from our ancestors that has been passed down to all of us through our genetic materials.

Let's look at an example in order to demonstrate how collective unconscious works.

First Interactions

Sam, a research psychologist, decides to conduct a study examining how children respond to meeting certain animals for the first time. Sam recruits 100 children between the ages of 1 and 5 and introduces the children to two different animals: a rabbit and a snake. The children respond to the rabbit in differing ways. Most of them are curious and attempt to interact with the rabbit in some way, either through touch or talk. Only 2 of the children refuse to interact with the rabbit. However, all 100 of the children respond to the snake with some level of fear. None of the children are willing to touch the snake and half of the children either cry or attempt to run out of the room at the sight of the snake. Sam wonders why the children fear the snake, especially since the children had never encountered a snake before.

While trying to make sense of the children's responses, Sam concludes that the fear of snakes is a part of our collective unconscious. It is likely that our ancestors had dangerous encounters with snakes, many of which could have resulted in death given that we didn't have the treatments or anti-venom for snake bites that we do now. To ensure the survival of the human species, our ancestors stored a memory into the collective unconscious that 'snakes are dangerous'. It would explain why the children in Sam's study and many people who know nothing about snakes are able to instantly recognize them as harmful and are afraid of snakes.

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