Automaticity is the ability to execute a skill using no (or very few) information processing resources: attention and working memory. When a skill can be executed in this fashion, the performer has resources available to process other sources of information not directly required for the task. Automaticity is thought to be a hallmark of expert performance that is acquired through learning and extensive practice. A breakdown of automaticity resulting from a performer turning attention inward toward skill execution is thought to be one of the primary causes of choking under pressure (see also the “Attentional Focus” entry).
When one performs a skill, there are different modes of control that can be used. At one extreme, commonly called controlled processing mode, a performer executes an action by following a series of explicit steps that are held in working memory and by focusing attention on each part of the action. Each stage during skill execution is consciously controlled and monitored. For example, when executing a complex movement in sports, the performer must remember the instructions to position different body parts and focus attention on these parts to determine if positioning is correct. In this performance mode, the information processing demands of the skill are very high and there are few, if any, leftover resources available for processing task-irrelevant information. At the other extreme, commonly called automatic processing mode, skill execution relies on motor programs or procedures that, once initiated, run without the use of attentional or working-memory resources. The skill is executed unconsciously as it is thought to involve muscle memory (well-developed internal commands for how the different body parts should be moved) rather than high-level cognitive control. In this performance mode, the performer has information processing resources available for handling task-irrelevant information. Planning a play to be executed on the next possession in basketball is an example of a highly controlled task, whereas running down the court is thought to be a highly automatic one.
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As first proposed by Paul Fitts, the controlled and automatic processing modes are thought to be characteristics of the early and late stages of skill acquisition, respectively. For novice performers, it has been proposed that skill execution requires that attention be paid to each component stage of the motor act (in golf, back-swing, down-swing, club-head angle in putting). At this level of performance, referred to as the cognitive or declarative stage, it is assumed that skill execution depends on a set of unintegrated control structures that must be held in working memory and attended in a step-by-step fashion. The attentional and memory requirements result in the slow, non-fluent, and error-prone movement execution that is characteristic of a novice performer. As expertise develops through practice and the performer reaches the highest stage of skill execution (the autonomous or procedural stage), it has been proposed that the role of attention and working memory in performance changes dramatically. As procedural knowledge develops, the conscious step-by-step control of execution is no longer required. Instead, skill execution is assumed to operate by fast, efficient control procedures that function largely without the assistance of working memory or attention. At this final stage, it is proposed that skill automaticity has been achieved. It is frequently also proposed that automatic skills are encapsulated such that, once they are initiated, it is difficult for the performer to inhibit or disrupt them.
A key advantage that automaticity is thought to give an athlete is the availability of attentional and working-memory resources to process information in the environment not directly related to movement control. First, the performer is more likely to detect situational or contextual information that is not required for movement control but may serve to improve performance success. If an expert footballer does not need to actively monitor the position of the body when taking a penalty kick, that player will have processing capacity available to attend to the movements of the goalkeeper. Second, the performer is less likely to be affected by the introduction of stimuli completely irrelevant to the task like a fan yelling an insult or waving hands in the background.
Theories of skill acquisition and automaticity make several predictions about the nature of performance (and the supporting attentional mechanisms and memory structures) as a function of skill level. For example, if it involves the automatic processing mode, expert performance should be (a) unaffected by the introduction of an irrelevant secondary task that requires attentional or working memory resources, and (b) associated with a poorer ability to verbalize the stages involved in skill execution (expertise-induced amnesia) since these stages are not attended or held actively in memory. For the most part, research evidence is consistent with these predictions; however, for most tasks, it has also been shown there is some decrement in performance when a highly demanding secondary task is introduced. Therefore, it may not be the case that automatic processes are completely resource free; rather, automaticity may be best characterized by a reduction in the processing resources required.
Another important prediction of skill acquisition and automaticity theories concerns pressure-induced failures of performance (choking under pressure). One of the dominant theories of choking, called explicit monitoring theory, proposes that pressure can cause the deautomization of well-learned skills. This occurs because an increase in self-consciousness and anxiety about performing well causes an athlete to turn attention inward on the specific processes of performance in an attempt to exert more explicit monitoring and control. This increase in skill-focused attention is thought to disrupt the automatic motor procedures.
- Anderson, J. R. (1983). The architecture of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Beilock, S. L., & Gray, R. (2007). Why do athletes “choke” under pressure? In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 425–444). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Fitts, P. M., & Posner, M. I. (1967). Human performance. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.