Automatic Processing in Psychology

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A cognitive process, also known as mental modes, consists of two processing systems at work in the human mind. Automatic processing is one of those systems and has to do with how information is processed. So what exactly is automatic processing, and how does it work?

When we believe that cognitive activity is primarily carried out without conscious attention, active effort, or any cognitive effort, often without a hint of true awareness, it is called automatic. Automatic processing is not the same as controlled processing, although both are cognitive processes.

Automatic processing plays an important role in how we process information or stimuli. Unfortunately, as with many things, automatic processing also has its cons. Here is what to know about automatic processing, how different it is from one other kind of processing, and the possible disorders linked to it.

All About Automatic Processing

The human mind is the most fascinating and complex organ that is still, to date, not fully understood. However, there is plenty of information regarding how the human mind works in two ways. Simply put, the human mind has two cognitive processes. These are known as either automatic or controlled.

This means that an individual's mind could either be in a controlled or automatic mode at any given time in their life. Suppose you're wondering what automatic processing means. In that case, an automatic process refers to involuntary, unintentional, effortless, and outside awareness.

In reaction to specific environmental stimuli, particular behaviors are carried out. Sometimes repeated practice leads to certain habits becoming automatic. Priming, habituation, and mental accounting are the three primary categories of automatic processing.

Priming takes place when we learn anything new, like how to read. Habituation develops when we get accustomed to something, like operating an automobile. This is known as mental accounting, when you consider numbers differently because of varying values.

For example, people never forget how to ride a bike. Yes, an individual may be unsteady after many years of not having ridden one but once your motor memory kicks in, riding a bike becomes an activity that you carry out without even thinking about how your feet should move or how to maintain your balance on the bike.

There is no internal monologue and, therefore, no cognitive effort exercised. You perform the action unintentionally. This means that the brain is supporting this activity in an automatic mode. To further prove how effortless and automatic it is, people can still focus on their surroundings, sightsee, and even carry on conversations while riding a bike.

Another example of automatic processing would be breathing. No one is aware of their own breathing a significant amount of the time. It is involuntary and effortless. You may become aware of your breathing only when you're exercising. When you remember what you see and hear is automatic and involuntary because it is impossible to simply just stop remembering.

An example to help you understand

Word recognition is a classic example of an activity believed to be mostly automatic. You are ideally reading this answer to comprehend its overall significance, and you are actively concentrating your attention in that direction.

However, this response also includes several widely used words you are presumably reading without effort. Furthermore, as soon as those words come into your line of sight, you'll probably find it difficult to resist reading them. It will merely occur.

In case you haven't noticed, the 2 paragraphs above are part of the example. However, here is the proof to cement the above-written paragraphs:

Much of this understanding was derived from multiple replications and modifications of the 1935 Stroop effect. The traditional method involves displaying color words and asking participants to identify the color they are written in.

There generally is no issue if the word and the color of the font the word is written in match. However, it was typically observed that individuals fumbled if the word and color of the font didn't match. This is known as the incompatible condition.

According to the Automaticity Theory, if individuals try to name the shade of yellow that the word blue is printed in without suppressing the automatic portion of the word identification process, they frequently fail to do so.

Is Automatic And Controlled Processing The Same?

As mentioned above, automatic processing happens effortlessly and unintentionally. So, does controlled processing work in the same way? The answer is no. Controlled processing is a cognitive process that is intentional, effortful, within awareness, and limited by the attention resource available in that given moment.

To give you an idea, when you're doing statistics and are working on a formula to get to a certain answer, this is a controlled cognitive process. For example, if you're trying to figure out what 10 multiplied by 2 is, you are intentional with your cognitive process.

Furthermore, you run into the limit when you cannot pay attention to two things at once. For example, you cannot solve a mathematics problem while simultaneously reading a book. You simply don't have sufficient attention to focus on both simultaneously. In this case, the attention is the resource, which is limited as it cannot be split between the two activities.

Do Activities Have To Be Either Automatic Or Controlled?

Suppose you wonder if an activity can only be automatic or controlled processing. As with most things, it isn't just black or white. Whether an activity is automatic or controlled is all relative. For example, walking is effortless once you have learned how to. Therefore it is automatic.

However, that also does not mean it cannot be controlled. Take creeping on someone to scare them, for example. The act of walking unnaturally slow is definitely less automatic. Furthermore, walking backward is highly controlled as it is not effortless and is very much intentional. Therefore, there are levels such as:

  • It is very much this process
  • It is not so much this process and
  • It is not at all this process

Can Activities Change From Automatic To Controlled?

Interestingly, the answer is yes. Different kinds of activities can change from automatic to controlled processes and vice versa. Activities like riding a bike or even driving a car can be carried out in an automatic mode only once that individual has learned that activity and has sufficient practice.

This is because, in the beginning, performing those activities requires copious amounts of cognitive processing. Therefore, they initially require a lot of effort and intention, making them controlled processes. As one gets more knowledgeable and comfortable doing them, they become automatic.

Furthermore, breathing is undoubtedly one of the most basic processes. However, as mentioned above, once you start to focus on your breathing, it becomes controlled instead of automatic. Additionally, communicating with people in your traditional language is also considered a basic process; therefore, the brain automatically supports it.

As you have noticed, it is possible to think about one thing while talking about another thing simultaneously. However, when it comes to speaking a foreign language, a controlled mode is needed. Chatting with family and friends is automatic but chatting with strangers requires cognitive effort, particularly for someone that is not outgoing and has social anxiety.

What Is Dual Processing Psychology?

The theory of dual processing psychology explains the various possible courses of action in a given circumstance. It creates two channels for the processing of information.

First: Processes through system 1 happens quickly, automatically, and unconsciously. There is a lack of context and specific detail. Unconscious behavior that one is not mindful of.

Second: Processing carried out by system 2 is purposeful, deliberate, and voluntary. A deliberate action that one is aware of. People use their working memory, and the information is explicit and in more detail.

Note: To process information and learn, we employ both processing systems. Dual processing is utilized in social psychology to make decisions about situations and other individuals. This may impact stereotypical ideas about how accurate information obtained or learned from others is.

Are There Disorders Related To Automatic Processing?

Although there is ongoing research, it seemed as if automatic processing was different in those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Research was conducted to learn more about how automatic processes were affected in this case. The processing of time-related information is frequently impaired in people with ADHD.

However, because active activities were required in the majority of trials, it is unclear if performance issues stem from attentional problems, problems with temporal information processing, or problems with later decision-making. The automatic processing when it comes to temporal information in ADHD-affected children was investigated in this study using mismatch negativity.

The findings imply that children that have ADHD are capable of automatically processing temporal information. As a result, difficulties in active discrimination scenarios are probably the result of deficiencies in temporal information utilization or subjective perception.

Furthermore, one other disorder is believed to be linked to automatic processing. According to some theories, social anxiety disorder is linked to automatic information processing biases that cause increased sensitivity to social threat signals. This would be unfavorable facial expressions.

Threat processing is believed to happen instinctively, quickly, and non-strategically in anxiety disorders, as well as SAD. Memory, attention, and interpretation studies have consistently demonstrated biased information processing toward unambiguous or clear indications of poor social appraisal.

On the behavioral and neurological levels, the nature and severity of automated processes in SAD are still unclear. Only a small handful of studies have systematically attempted to directly study automatic brain processes.

Preliminary data supporting automated early electrophysiological components, as well as other factors, were examined. Results, however, fluctuate according to tasks, stimuli, and neuroscientific techniques.

Pros And Cons Of Automatic Processing

Processing that is automated doesn't need contact supervision or direction. Because of this, it is quick and effective and uses very little brain energy. This is where the term cognitive miser comes into play. Automatic processing enables us to interact with our environment predictably and recognizably.

As people gain more experience, they become more aware of what is more probable to happen in certain settings. Since automatic processing decreases the need to engage your memory, it is advantageous for routine jobs like riding a bike, housekeeping, etc. This frees up your attention for other tasks or to focus on the remaining things you need to get done that day.

This naturally leads to individuals being more productive as there is no need to take the time to put effort into doing day-to-day tasks you are used to doing.

However, as much as the benefits are great, the downfall of automatic processing is quite significant. People act mindlessly as a result of automatic processing. They allow their self-consciousness to rule, which can jeopardize the effectiveness of the results of some tasks. This increases the likelihood of errors and mishaps.

When faced with a dilemma, most people turn to the most usual and comfortable approach. This may restrict their ability to consider more recent and advantageous solutions. You may not recall engaging in these behaviors since they can become ingrained. This frame of thinking commonly comes into play when performing daily tasks or behaviors.

For example, you're so used to turning off your coffee machine when you leave for work that you do it without a second thought. Once you get to work, you start wondering if you really did turn off the coffee machine. You're not sure because you weren't paying any attention.

There was no active effort put into switching off the coffee machine and while this may seem like a minor problem, it can become dangerous in a safety-related job where doing routine checks without any intentional thought going into it, may cause you miss something important that can result in a serious accident happening.


As can be seen, automatic processing makes life much easier. This is because individuals do not have to expend copious amounts of energy doing day-to-day tasks they have done countless times. Interestingly, although automated processing is not the same as controlled processing, activities can change from one to the other. Studies relating to automatic processing are still underway.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, September). Automatic Processing in Psychology. Retrieved from

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