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Automatic and controlled processes

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Cognitive Psychology: Attention · Decision making · Learning · Judgement · Memory · Motivation · Perception · Reasoning · Thinking  - Cognitive processes Cognition - Outline Index

Automatic and Controlled Processes (ACP)is a two part theory of human cognition. Automatic processes and controlled processes are the two categories of cognitive process addressed by the theory, which states that all cognitive processes fall into one or both of those two categories. The amounts of “processing power”, attention, and effort a process requires is the primary factor used to determine whether it’s a controlled or an automatic process.[1]

Main Differences
Controlled Processes Automatic Processes
Slow Response Fast Response
Attention Demanding Not Attention Demanding
Serial in Nature Parallel in Nature
Easily Disrupted Often Unavoidable

Controlled ProcessesEdit

One definition of a controlled process is an intentionally-initiated sequence of cognitive activities.[2] In other words, when active attention is required for a task (such as reading this article,) the cognitive process directing that performance is said to be “controlled". In essence, humans are thought to have a limited capacity for overtly controlling behavior, but they must use such control when dealing with novel situations for which they haven’t learned an automatic process. Due to the overt attention demanded, this type of process can often be interrupted to perform other tasks.

Controlled processes are thought to be slower, since by definition they require effortful control; therefore, they generally cannot be conducted simultaneously with other controlled processes without task-switching or impaired performance. Being tightly capacity limited, controlled processing imposes considerable limitations on speed and the ability to multitask. These limitations are balanced out by the benefits of being able to easily design, alter, and perform procedures in novel situations. This is especially critical when situations require responses for which automatic processes have not been developed (due to, for example, complexity or novelty.)

One example of a controlled process is voluntary task switching while driving a car. The vehicle's operator is required to regularly switch attention among the various components of the task (such as steering and checking mirrors,) and switching intentionally is a controlled process. An additional task (such as using a cell phone) would reduce the amount of cognitive resources available for managing all of the components involved in operating the vehicle, although many of the components of driving are decidedly automatic processes. For this reason, driving can be thought of as both an automatic and a controlled process.

Attention Control Edit

Main article: Attentional Control

Attention control is a major example of controlled processing in which a subdominant response is substituted with a dominant one. There are three types of attention control:[3]

  • Selective Attention: Focusing attention on one aspect of the environment, while avoiding attention to other stimuli, to include those that are "attention-grabbing".
  • Divided Attention: Attending and responding to multiple streams of information simultaneously.
  • Sustained Attention: Focusing attention over a long period of time.

Driving a car through an active construction zone at night on a freeway is an example of when attention control is critical. In such a scenario, a driver’s focus on keeping the vehicle on the road could be interrupted by flashing lights or moving objects in the periphery. In this case, attention control ensures that the driver is not distracted from the primary task of keeping the car on the road.

Executing attention control requires a portion of the total limited capacity mentioned in controlled processes. This is based on a theory that the mind has a self-control "capacity" that can be depleted.[3] There are several sources of evidence to support this theory.

A standard task that demonstrates the additional effort required to overtly control one's own attention has subjects watch a video of an interview. The video of the interview has extraneous text displayed. In one condition subjects aren't given instructions regarding attention. In the other condition subjects are instructed to avoid attending to the words. It is consistently observed that subjects in the latter condition find the task to be more difficult. These effects are also demonstrated in the Stroop task, in which subjects must name the color of a presented word, where the presented word is itself the name of a color.[3]

There is also evidence that attention control has effects that last beyond the task requiring attention. In one study, participants performed an attention-control task and subsequently completed portions of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). Those participants who were required to explicitly exert attention control performed more poorly; however, control of attention didn't seem to affect their performance in short-term memory tasks. This is hypothesized to be because the GRE requires self-control of cognitive processes, whereas short-term memory tasks do not. Exerting attention control has also been tied to a decreased ability to inhibit thoughts of death, racially-biased thoughts, and emotional responses.[3] These findings reaffirm the notion that attention control requires a portion of the limited capacity available to controlled processes, and that the depletion of limited capacity affects an individual’s ability to employ attention control involving separate tasks, even after a period of time has passed. Some experiments found that exerting attention control resulted in lower blood glucose levels, but that restoration of the glucose level mitigated the costs associated with such attention control,[3] implying that blood glucose level could be tied to limited capacity for controlled processes in general.

Automatic ProcessesEdit

One definition of an automatic process is a sequence of cognitive activities that is automatically initiated (i.e. without active control) in response to an input configuration.[2] Automatic processes require near zero attention for the task at hand and in many instances are executed in response to a specific stimulus. One type of automatic process is an automatic attention response, which is a special type of automatic process that directs attention automatically to a target stimulus. Being distracted away from another task involves an automatic attention response.

Like the mentioned automatic attention response, automatic processes can occur without explicit direction, and can take place in parallel with other actions without impairment. These processes, often learned sequences of events held in long-term memory, are triggered by specific phenomena. When these phenomena are encountered, the learned procedure is carried out with little conscious effort by the actor (the organism or entity performing the procedure), often not demanding attention from the actor or stressing the capacity limitations mentioned in controlled processes.

Examples of automatic processes are recognizing the faces of other people and recognizing spoken words, since both take place without explicitly deciding to do so, both take place while many other processes are occurring, and in fact neither can easily be inhibited.[1] In general, these processes consistently operate through the same cognitive pathways. These pathways can be innate, or they can be developed through extensive and persistent training (this is related to nature vs. nurture.)

The study of automatic processing can help in understanding control in skilled behavior. With extensive practice, the cognitive processes required when performing a skilled action might become faster and more efficient. Such gains in proficiency will reduce the “processing power” required by the task, allowing the performer to concentrate on other aspects of the situation (e.g. navigation while skiing), process information faster, or perform additional tasks in parallel.[2]

Implicit in the idea of automaticity is that if a process is truly automatic, any other simultaneous task should in theory be possible without interfering with that process. Automatic processing can interfere with other processes, however, possibly delaying a proper response when attention is drawn to the wrong place (i.e. distraction), or resulting in a movement that is inappropriate for the situation (e.g. responding to an opponent's "fake" in tennis).[2]

Processes with Ambiguous CategorizationEdit

Some cognitive processes are difficult to categorize as distinctly automatic or controlled, either because they contain components of both types of process or because the phenomena are difficult to define or observe. An example of the former is driving a car. An example of the latter is flow.


Main article: Flow (psychology)

Flow has been described as involving highly-focused attention on the task at hand, loss of self-consciousness, and distorted time perception, among other cognitive characteristics. Some people report that during flow states they are less aware of autonomic responses such as hunger, fatigue, and discomfort. Some researchers hypothesize that because of this, some challenging tasks can counterintuitively require less effort to perform.[4]

Flow has been difficult to study, however, because it's difficult to produce in a controlled laboratory setting. Most experiments have relied heavily on correlating the presence of flow with various attributes of the task and the subjects' reported experiences. Of those correlations, subjects experiencing flow generally report that they perceive a good match between the task requirements and their skills (e.g. a professional basketball player in a professional basketball game.) Task structure and the clarity of the goal of the task are also thought to be related to when flow occurs.[4] All of these aspects of flow imply that there must be an opportunity to suppress other controlled processes, as well as inhibit certain types of automatic processes.

A study involving video game performance showed that flow in participants (determined based on a self-report survey of flow characteristics) strongly correlated with performance in the game. A related study attempted to inhibit and induce flow by biasing the moods of participants. The experimenters found that flow could be inhibited by a negative mood, but could not be induced by a positive mood.[4]

"A person does not need to be told to pay attention to a stimulus that captures attention quickly and effortlessly."[3] In many cases, explicitly directing one’s own or another’s attention is necessary due to the presence of another stimulus that more easily captures attention. In the case of flow, however, an action that would normally grab one's attention is ignored, and many automatic processes are either suppressed (such as stimulus-driven attention changes) or ignored (such as discomfort.)

On the other hand, situations in which autonomy is encroached upon (for example, if the individual must always control his/her actions to abide by rules imposed by the task) are thought to inhibit flow.[4] This implies that another requirement of flow is to be free from constraints that force controlled processes to be used. Additionally, several areas of research indicate that during a state of flow an otherwise-controlled process becomes automatic allowing it to behave dominant over all other automatic processes.

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 Schmidt,R.A., Lee, T.D 2011. Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioural Emphasis.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Schneider, Shiffrin 1977. Controlled Automatic Human Information Processing: I. Detection, Search, and Attention.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Schmeichel, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. 2010. Effortful attention control. In B. Bruya (Ed.), Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action (pp. 29-49). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Moller, A. C., Meier, B. P., & Wall, R. D. 2010. Developing an experimental induction of flow: Effortless action in the lab. In B. Bruya (Ed.), Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action (pp. 191-204). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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