Automatic Processes

Automatic Processes Definition

Automatic processes are unconscious practices that happen quickly, do not require attention, and cannot be avoided.

Automatic Processes Analysis

Automatic ProcessesImagine you are driving a very familiar route, such as your daily route to school, the university, or your work. You mindlessly drive along various familiar roads and upon arrival, a friend asks you, “Did you see there’s a new DVD/video store on the square near the church?” You did pass this square, as you always do, but you didn’t notice the new store, and you answer, “Oh, I was thinking about our upcoming exam, I didn’t even see the square, let alone the new store.”

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

From a psychological viewpoint, something very interesting happened here. How can you drive safely and negotiate traffic without consciously noticing where you are? Let’s face it (just remember the first few times you drove a car), driving is really quite complicated. You have to carefully look at the road, at the traffic, and in your rearview mirror. You have to slow down in time before a curve, you have to steer, if you are driving a stick shift, you have to change gears. In addition, you have to do all these things more or less simultaneously. How can you do all of those things while thinking about your exam, that is, without any conscious attention directed at the driving?

The answer is that driving (assuming you are skilled and the route is familiar) is a largely automatic process. Of course you saw the square when you passed it; otherwise you could not have negotiated it. You cannot drive blindfolded. However, the process of driving through the square is so automatized that a fleeting glance of the square is enough. You do not need to pay conscious attention, and you do not have to interrupt thinking about the exam. In fact, if you drive a familiar route, you usually pay attention only to things that are unexpected. And those are the only things you later remember (“I did notice there was an accident on Main Street”).

The Four Horsemen of Automaticity

In the 1970s, psychologists started to distinguish between psychological processes that were automatic and psychological processes that were controlled. Automatic processes are unconscious (i.e., you are not consciously aware of them), efficient (they require no effort), unintentional (you don’t have to want them to happen), and uncontrollable (once started, you cannot stop them). Controlled processes are the opposite: They are conscious (you have to be consciously aware of them), inefficient (they require effort), intentional (they only happen when you want them to happen), and controllable (you can stop them).

Soon thereafter, psychologists discovered a problem. According to the criteria outlined in the previous paragraph, relatively few psychological processes are fully automatic and even fewer are fully controlled. There are exceptions of course. If an object (such as a snowball) quickly approaches your face, you close your eyes. This is a reflex and it is fully automatic. It does not require conscious awareness, it does not require any effort, it is unintentional, and also uncontrollable (you cannot stop it). Conversely, writing is fully controlled. You need to be aware of it, it requires effort, it is intentional and controllable. However, most interesting psychological processes have both automatic and controlled elements. Think again about driving. If you are a skilled driver driving a familiar route, driving can be mostly unconscious (except when something unexpected happens). It is also highly efficient as you can easily have an interesting conversation with someone while you drive—that is, the driving does not require effort. However, it is intentional. You do not suddenly find yourself driving somewhere. You drive to school or work because you want to go there. Finally, driving is controllable. You can stop the process if you so desire.

As a consequence, according to the psychologist John Bargh, it would be more useful to look at the separate criteria for automaticity (Bargh called them the four horsemen), rather than viewing automaticity and control as all or none concepts.

1. Conscious versus unconscious.

Some behavior requires conscious attention; other behavior does not and can proceed unconsciously. Obviously, most bodily functions, such as breathing, do not require conscious awareness. However, many psychological processes are unconscious as well. For instance, we automatically categorize objects or people we perceive as good or bad. That is, we possess the capacity of “automatic evaluation.” Investigating whether processes require conscious awareness can be done in different ways. The technique used most often in social psychological research is priming. Psychologists surreptitiously present people with stimuli (such as words or pictures). When these stimuli have psychological consequences (such as when a primed stimulus influences an impression formed of a person later on) without people being aware of this influence, psychologists can conclude it is an unconscious process.

2. Efficient versus inefficient.

Some behavior requires effort and uses what is called “attentional resources.” Other behavior does not. The driving example is useful again. The first few times you drive a car, you need attentional resources to control the car and to navigate traffic. Once you are a skilled driver, however, you do not need attentional resources anymore. The way to investigate whether a process is efficient or not is to have people do it while also performing a secondary task that requires attentional resources (such as memorizing digits or talking). If a process breaks down while one engages in a secondary task, the process is inefficient. If not, it is efficient. A skilled driver can have an interesting conversation with a passenger while driving, because driving has become efficient. A starting driver cannot drive and talk at the same time without running the risk of causing dangerous situations, because driving is still inefficient.

3. Intentional versus unintentional.

Some behavior only happens when we want it to happen, whereas other behavior unfolds regardless of our desires. Driving is intentional, and so are behaviors such as reading or writing. However, some of the behavior we display during social interactions is unintentional. It has been found that people, without being aware of it, to some extent mimic their interaction partner. If we talk to someone, we often use the same gestures, our bodily postures match, and even our speech patterns converge a little bit. This does not happen because we want it to happen; rather, it is unintentional. One way to find out whether a process is intentional is to see whether it occurs when it has negative consequences. Priming research shows that priming people with a social stereotype leads to behavioral assimilation. For instance, if people are primed with pictures of senior citizens, they become a little slower and more forgetful; if people are primed with professors, they perform better on a general knowledge test. These effects also hold for behaviors that are clearly negative. Priming people with supermodels makes them perform worse on a general knowledge test. This means the effect is unintentional, as no one deliberately wants to come across as stupid.

4. Controllable versus uncontrollable.

This criterion is relatively simple. Can people stop a psychological process after it has started? If it is stoppable, it is called controllable. Closing your eye when a snowball is about to hit you is uncontrollable. Breathing is too. You can hold your breath for a short while, but not for too long. Reading and talking are controllable. You can stop whenever you want to. Investigating the controllability of a process is relatively easy. See if people can stop an activity when you ask them to. If so, the process is controllable. If not, the process is uncontrollable.

Automaticity Is Adaptive

There are basically two kinds of automatic processes. Some things, such as reflexes, are automatic simply because of the way humans developed as a species. Other behavior is initially largely controlled (in the sense that it requires conscious awareness and effort) and can become automatic through learning. Driving is again a good example. Another is people’s morning routine. Many people think about the day ahead while they take a shower. This is possible because taking a shower is a routine, automatic process. It is efficient, so that we can use attentional resources to do more important things, such as planning our day. This is highly adaptive: The more we can do automatically, the more time we have left for the behaviors that do require conscious awareness and effort.


  1. Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462-476.
  2. Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.