Automaticity in information processing is best conceptualized in terms of its antithesis. “Deliberative” processing involves the comprehension and use of information for a particular purpose (e.g., to make a judgment or decision, to communicate to others, etc.). This processing is conscious and intentional; it requires some degree of cognitive or motor effort, and it is volitional. In contrast, behavior is automatic if it does not have one or more of these characteristics. That is, it is unintentional or it is performed unconsciously without awareness or it is effortless or it is unable to be controlled. Although these criteria are not independent, a behavior is often characterized as automatic if it meets any one of them.
Of the four criteria for inferring automaticity, lack of awareness is most widely investigated. Numerous experiments demonstrate that stimuli to which people are exposed subliminally (below the threshold of conscious awareness) can influence not only the concepts they use to interpret information but also the information they use as a basis for inferences and the standards they employ in making comparisons. Furthermore, these stimuli can activate goal-directed behavior and can have a direct impact on behavioral decisions.
It is important to specify what people are aware or unaware of. As in the preceding examples, people can be unaware of a stimulus itself. In other cases, however, they might be aware of a stimulus but be unaware of the mental processes that govern its interpretation and use. For example, people who hear that someone wants to cross the Atlantic in a sailboat might interpret the behavior as “adventurous” but be unaware of the factors that led them to select this description rather than “reckless.” Alternatively, a person might form a favorable or unfavorable impression of someone on the basis of an interaction with the person but be unaware of the specific features of the person that gave rise to this impression. Finally, people might be aware of a stimulus but not be aware of its influence. As one study shows, for example, individuals can be aware of a person’s ethnicity but unaware of its impact on their judgments of the person or their interpretation of his or her behavior. Similarly, people might be aware that they are in a good or bad mood but unaware of the influence that these feelings have on their evaluation of a person or object they happen to encounter.
The effects of subliminally activated concepts and knowledge are unintended. However, stimuli of which people are aware can also have unintended influences on their behavior. An example is provided by the “chameleon effect,” or a tendency for individuals to imitate the nonverbal behavior of persons with whom they are interacting (crossing their legs, rubbing their chin, etc.) without intending to do so. People often use the events and situations they see on television as bases for inferring the incidence of these events in the real world. Consequently, heavy television viewers tend to overestimate the incidence of events and situations that are over-represented in this medium (violent crimes, or people with swimming pools in their back yard). However, the use of this source of information is unintentional, and calling attention to these effects can lead individuals to adjust for their influence.
The third criterion for inferring the automaticity of behavior is the extent to which people are able to control its occurrence (controllability). Native English speakers may find it impossible not to understand the statement “the boy kicked the ball.” At the same time, they cannot help but recognize that “the ball kicked the boy” is nonsensical, and that it can be understood only by engaging in deliberative processing (e.g., constructing a mental image of a ball with legs beating up on the boy). Similarly, it is difficult for Americans not to recognize that the statement “Abraham Lincoln was Prime Minister of England” is untrue. Efforts to exercise control over a behavior can sometimes have unintended effects. This possibility is exemplified by research on the effects of thought suppression. That is, conscious attempts to suppress the use of a stereotype in making judgments can be effective in the short run. However, the attempts to suppress the stereotype actually increase the tendency to use it later, once conscious efforts to avoid using it no longer exist.
Behavior and judgments are performed automatically to the extent that their performance requires no cognitive resources (efficiency). This possibility is typically examined by asking individuals to perform two tasks, A and B, simultaneously (e.g., to remember an eight-digit number while making judgments of visual stimuli). If one task, A, is performed just as quickly and well when people are simultaneously performing B as when they are not, one can conclude that B is performed automatically. For example, research shows that gender stereotypes have similar effects on judgments of a target person regardless of the cognitive demands placed on them by performing a secondary task, whereas behavior and trait information has less effect when other cognitive demands are high. This suggests that the implications of stereotypes for judgments, unlike those of other types of information, are identified and applied automatically.
Daily life activities normally involve a mixture of both deliberative and automatic processing. A driver may consciously think about the way to a restaurant and may intentionally look for street signs that indicate where to turn. Moreover, the person may deliberatively slow down to let a pedestrian cross the street. At the same time, he or she may not be conscious of the specific actions performed to attain these goals (turning left, stopping and starting the car, etc.). Similarly, writers may think consciously about the wording of a sentence they construct. Yet, many of the specific words and phrases they employ may come to mind automatically. A conceptualization of individuals’ responses to communications will ultimately require an understanding of how these two types of processing interface.
- Bargh, J. A. (1992). The ecology of automaticity: Toward establishing the conditions needed to produce automatic processing effects. American Journal of Psychology, 105(2), 181–199.
- Bargh, J. A. (1994). The Four Horsemen of automaticity: Awareness, efficiency, intention, and control in social cognition. In R. S. Wyer, Jr. & T. K. Srull (eds.), Handbook of social cognition, 2nd edn. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 1– 40.
- Bargh, J. A., & Ferguson, M. J. (2000). Beyond behaviorism: On the automaticity of higher mental processes. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 925 – 945.
- Wyer, R. S., Jr. (ed.) (1997). The automaticity of everyday life. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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