What Is Automaticity?

The Risks and Benefits of Automatic Behaviors

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Have you ever done something without really thinking, like driving to work without really registering any details about your journey? When a co-worker later asks if you saw something on the way to work you might be surprised that you remember nothing about your morning drive. People often refer to this as being "zoned out" or on "autopilot." This ability to do something without really thinking is an example of a phenomenon that psychologists call automaticity.


In different areas of our everyday lives, we often develop habits to deal with complex tasks. People go into autopilot and do things without really thinking. Going into automatic mode can make many tasks simpler because it frees up our attentional resources so we don't become overwhelmed by even the simplest of tasks. But it also introduces an element of danger and makes people prone to mistakes.

So why does automaticity take place? This ability to act without really thinking about it happens when a behavior becomes over-learned. If you practice an action over and over again, you eventually become so skilled at the task that you can perform it with little or no thought. Driving and walking are examples of actions that become automatic. When you sit down in your car to drive to work, you don't have to think about how to start the car, how to move the gear shift, or how to back out of your drive way.

When you walk, you don't have to consciously think about every movement or remind yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The behavior is so over-learned and over-practiced that it is simply second nature.

The Benefits of Automaticity

As mentioned previously, this autopilot thinking actually does have some advantages.

By slipping into this automated mode for routine tasks, we are able to function quickly and efficiently in our daily lives without having to devote attention to every tiny detail. Just imagine how laborious your day would be if you had to carefully remember and think about how to drive a car to get to work or how to walk across campus to get to class. Thanks to learning, practice, and repetition, these behaviors have become automatic.

In addition to freeing up attentional resources, automaticity allows us to feel comfortable and familiar in different environments. Through our experiences, we learn what is common and expected in different situations.

"When we walk into a grocery store, we know automatically how things are supposed to go," explain Wheatley and Wegner (2001). "We go in, grab a cart, pick food off the shelf, line up for a cashier who will take our money for the food, and we can go home... We automatically know the proper assumptions of the situation based on our experiences."

The Risks of Automatic Thinking

While automaticity has its benefits, it also has its downsides. Automatic thinking can be a risk in many areas of our lives, from making costly errors at work to the more mundane, day-to-day dangers like the busy street we have to cross every morning to get to work. As the action becomes so routine and habitual, we might neglect to really check traffic before stepping out into the road – an action that might lead to tragic and deadly consequences.

Fortunately, researchers have discovered some tactics that can help pull people out of this autopilot mode and tune in to what's going on around them.

One way to fight automaticity is to introduce novelty and to vary routines. Instead of having an employee perform the same repetitive task all day, employers might design organizational routines that vary tasks or even rotate workers between different tasks. At a bank, for example, an employee might periodically shift from dealing with customers, balancing cash drawers, helping new customers open accounts, and assisting people with loan applications. Shifting attention between tasks breaks up the repetition and helps draw workers out of autopilot mode.

Some professionals, such as health-care workers and airline pilots, utilize a verbal double-check system where workers repeat vital information to a witness. However, researchers have found that such procedures are not always fail-safe. The FAA utilizes an approach designed to make this checklist system more reliable by engaging multiple senses in the checklist process. Workers read checklist items aloud, visually check each item, and then physically touch each control or sensor. The goal is that by utilizing multiple checks, pilots will be less likely to fall into the trap of automatic thinking and be more cognizant of potential problems or errors.

Automacity might not be easy to overcome, but researchers suggest that being aware of it and consciously taking steps to avoid it might be the best solution. Instead of zoning out during your daily commute, make an effort to tune in and really pay attention to your journey and what's happening in the world around you.

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Wheatley, T., & Wegner, D. M. (2001). Automaticity of action, psychology of. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier Ltd.

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