Action assembly theory (AAT) seeks to explain message behavior (both verbal and nonverbal) by describing the system of mental structures and processes that give rise to those behaviors. As such, AAT is a member of the broader class of cognitive theories of message production. AAT, in turn, is itself an umbrella category for any of a variety of actual and potential specific theories that share certain central features, most prominently the notion that actions are created by integrating (or assembling) elemental features represented in memory in code systems reflecting multiple levels of abstraction. Two distinct exemplars of this class are found in Greene (1984, 1997).
The initial impetus for the development of AAT was a set of fundamental observations concerning the nature of behavior and behavioral production – among them the observation that behavior is simultaneously patterned and creative. The approach of AAT is to ascribe the patterned character of verbal and nonverbal messages to action features represented in long-term memory. The creative character of behavior, then, comes from the integration of such features to form unique collocations – thoughts and actions that the individual may never have thought, heard, seen, or said before.
In the language of AAT, “action features,” the fundamental building blocks of thought and overt action, are stored in memory in units called “procedural records.” The theory then specifies two processes involved in making use of action features to produce messages: “activation” (the process by which features relevant to one’s goals and ongoing activities are selected), and “assembly” (the process of integrating activated features). The result of assembly is the “output representation” – a constantly evolving representation of one’s thoughts and overt verbal and nonverbal behaviors.
“Second generation AAT” (Greene 1997) extends this framework and incorporates some additional constructs. In this theory, the nature of the assembly process is depicted as one of coalition formation. Consciousness, or the phenomenal awareness of thoughts and action specifications, is held to be a function of the level and duration of activation of a coalition of action features. Consciousness is ascribed a functional role in bringing executive processes such as planning, editing, and rehearsal into play.
AAT, then, views behavior as a constellation of coalitions of action features, in which those coalitions are only loosely related (if at all), and only some coalitions come to be manifested as overt action. The time scale on which these coalitions emerge and decay is quite brief (i.e., typically less than a second). As a consequence of the nature of the activation and assembly processes, behavior is less cohesive than we might typically assume. Thoughts may not “come out” as we intend; behaviors may reveal more than social actors themselves apprehend; inconsistencies may emerge between behavioral “channels” (Greene 2000, 2006).
Other features of the theory also merit mention. Among these, in contrast to commonsense notions that message production reflects a top-down, ideation-to-behavior ordering, AAT posits that lower-level action specifications can drive higher-order mentation. As a further example, second-generation AAT invokes no conception of a limited pool of processing resources to account for familiar multiple-task limitations on performance.
Because difficulties in assembly are held to be reflected in the time required to formulate and execute messages, a number of studies conducted within the AAT framework have examined speech fluency and various temporal characteristics of speech (see Greene 1995). These studies have included investigations into the impact of attempting to design messages that address multiple goals, and the effects of advance message planning on speech fluency. Another program of research has examined the impact of practice, or skill acquisition, on the speed of message production (see Greene 2003). AAT has also been applied in studies of the nature of the self, communication apprehension, and the behavioral correlates of deception. Ongoing work is devoted to exploring “creative facility” – individual differences in the ability to formulate novel, socially appropriate messages.
- Greene, J. O. (1984). A cognitive approach to human communication: An action assembly theory. Communication Monographs, 51, 289 –306.
- Greene, J. O. (1995). An action assembly perspective on verbal and nonverbal message production: A dancer’s message unveiled. In D. E. Hewes (ed.), The cognitive bases of interpersonal communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 51– 85.
- Greene, J. O. (1997). A second generation action assembly theory. In J. O. Greene (ed.), Message production: Advances in communication theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 151–170.
- Greene, J. O. (2000). Evanescent mentation: An ameliorative conceptual foundation for research and theory on message production. Communication Theory, 10, 139 –155.
- Greene, J. O. (2003). Models of adult communication skill acquisition: Practice and the course of performance improvement. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (eds.), Handbook of communication and social interaction skills. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 51– 91.
- Greene, J. O. (2006). Have I got something to tell you: Ideational dynamics and message production. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 25, 64 –75.
- Greene, J. O., & Geddes, D. (1993). An action assembly perspective on social skill. Communication Theory, 3, 26 – 49.