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What is Automaticity?

Automaticity is where a skill has been learned to such a high degree that it is performed automatically or unconsciously. When automaticity is achieved, completion of a task or demonstration of a skill becomes an automatic process and can be completed with little conscious awareness or mental effort. Automaticity is achieved through learning, repetition, and practice and is an important component of almost any theory of skill acquisition.

automatic processes are thought to be the stored in procedural memory

Automatic and Controlled processes

Schneider and Shiffrin (1977) drew a distinction between 2 processes: automatic processes and controlled processes.

Automatic processes have no capacity limitation, do not require attention, are very hard to modify once learned and are fast and efficient. Once learned in the LTM it operates independently using no WM resources examples include reading and writing.

Controlled processes: have a limited capacity, require attention but can be used flexibly in changing circumstances. greater control over our thinking and actions means we can better adapt to new situations, and facilitate learning. In comparison to automatic processing, they are slow and make larger demands on cognitive resources.

The Stroop Task is a good example of the interaction between controlled and automatic processes. It involves colour words (red, blue green, yellow) printed in a different colour ink trying to name the colour of the ink as quickly as possible. Reading the word is an automatic process, but the task requires you to use controlled processing to override it.

Bargh (1997) argues that everyday life is automatic as it is driven by the environment such as people, objects, norms etc. Life is carried out by automatic, unconscious cognitive processing of these features. There are 3 routes by which environmental stimuli automatically produce social behaviour: 1) automatic social perception: the perception–behaviour link. 2) automatic evaluation: approach–avoidance motivation. 3) automatic goal and motive activation.

Developing Automaticity

Spelke, Hirst and Neisser (1976) documented the development of automaticity by asking participants who were skilled audio typists to perform two tasks separately: copy down a taped passage and to read a book passage, and were tested on their comprehension of the passage. They were then asked to perform both tasks simultaneously. This caused scores to drop massively at first, however, after many more hours of practice (3000 hours) they managed to return both scores to the baseline. This shows the automatisation of these two tasks.

Schneider and Shiffrin (1977) found that automaticity develops with practice when a task that involves consistent mappings between stimuli and response. This means that the action and reaction are consistent, and is contrasted to varied mapping, where the same action requires a different reaction depending on the situation. For example, when learning to touch type one should make sure they always practice on the same keyboard (consistent mapping). Using multiple keyboards with different keypads (varied mapping) will not lead to automaticity.

Schneider and Shiffrin used a visual search task investigate how consistent and varied mapping affects the development of automaticity. Participants were given target items (letters) and asked to memorise them, they had to spot these in a list of other items. These items were manipulated by Schneider and Schiffrin to demonstrate the difference between controlled and automatic processes.

in the consistent mapping condition, letters in the target set (e.g. a set of 4 letters - B Z Q L) only ever appeared again as a target itself, so it would never appear as a distractor (non target). Participants' reaction times improved with practice. In the varied mapping condition, letters from the target set sometimes appeared as a target, but other times as a distractor. This inconsistent relationship between where the item may appear result in no improvement in response times despite 100s of hours of practice.

An alternative view suggested in Logan's 1988 Instance Theory is that practice establishes a strong representation in memory that can be rapidly retrieved when needed. The idea is when we practice something the memories related to it are activated more often. this makes them easier to activate next time. 100s of hours of practice results in memories that are activated instantly with no cognitive resources needed to maintain them. This modifying of activation thresholds is an example of neuroplasticity, where the brain changes physically as a result of experience.

Automaticity and the Control of Action

Reason (1992) argues that we sometimes have everyday/action 'slips', e.g. going to put a spoon in the fridge than in the sink. This can be explained as everyday actions become automatic, and automatic processes are inflexible. Therefore, action slips occur when there is too much reliance on these automatic processes; we can't adapt to environmental changes like we could if we were in conscious control. We are probably being distracted when we go to put the spoon in the fridge, so we are in the automatic mode of control and the strongest available schema (e.g. stuff goes in the fridge after dinner)is wrong(Eysenck, 2004).

Perseveration Errors (Piaget, 1954) are where we repeat a behaviour so much that it becomes automatic, which can sometimes lead to the wrong reaction when the stimulus that influences the behaviour changes slightly. Piaget (1954) illustrated this in his study of 10 month old babies. An object was moved under box A and the baby had to lift the box to find the object. This happened a number of times and then the object was moved to under box B, and the baby tried to find it. Babies tend to make the perseveration error in that they look under box A still, even though they have just seen the experimenter put it under box B.

Disrupting Automaticity: Choking

There is a phenomenon called choking where subject’s perform badly on a skill they are normally good at. This arises from performance anxiety causing the subject to monitor their performance closely, inhibiting automaticity. Ironically thinking about what they’re doing makes them worse as normally they would complete the task automatically and have free cognitive load to focus on the more challenging aspects of the task, but now they must share cognitive resources with both tasks. (Lewis et al 1997)

A good example of choking occurs in tennis matches occasionally. The double fault occurs when a player illegally serves twice in a row. The first illegal serve could be down to a slight mistake, as a result, the player is concentrating on the part of the serve they got wrong last time, and in the process diverts resources away from a harder aspect of the serve.

Further Reading

Lewis, B., & Linder, D. (1997). Thinking about choking? Attentional processes and paradoxical performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 937-944

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