Understanding Automatic Processing: What Exactly Is It?

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Our brain is exposed to thousands of pieces of information every day. Everywhere we go, everyone we encounter, and anything we do introduces us to new information that we must evaluate, analyze, and perhaps employ. These functions are categorized as processing. We process information in two different ways; controlled processing and automatic processing.

Unconsciously processing incidental or well-learned data would be automatic, while active processing, which requires effort, would be controlled. We will talk more about the difference between the two in this article.

In eLearning, the main goal of course instructors is to keep their students engaged and to create an interactive course plan. While in most cases, this requires the students to make a conscious effort to process information, some eLearning techniques make use of automatic processing to help students grasp critical concepts as short bursts of knowledge over a longer period of time. This process is similar to microlearning, and even businesses use it to train their employees and allow them to progress on a daily basis.

In this article, we will talk about the core concepts of controlled and active processing in psychology, how they are beneficial, and where they can be applied.

Automatic Processing in Psychology: Definition

Automatic processing is a type of cognitive mental activity that is quick, simultaneous, and efficient, needs minimal cognitive effort, and does not involve the student’s conscious control or concentration.

Continuously teaching or reinforcing a particular concept can lead to this style of processing. An automatic response is tough to inhibit, amend, or ignore after it has been learned.

Automatic information processing is more often employed to learn skilled tasks and is the polar opposite of controlled information processing.

Automatic processes can happen without clear direction and can run in the background without causing any problems. These processes are triggered by specific phenomena and are often held in our long-term memories. When these instances occur, the learned procedure is carried out with little to no conscious effort, typically without requiring the student’s active concentration or being affected by the limitations of mental capacity.

Understanding how automatic processing works can help you understand the role of control in skilled behavior. The cognitive processes necessary when performing a skilled action can become quicker and more efficient with repeated practice. As a result of these improvements in skill, the processing power used to carry out the particular task will be reduced, allowing the student to focus on other parts of the circumstance, process information more quickly, or complete more activities simultaneously.

Automatic And Controlled Processes

Automatic and Controlled Processes (APC) is a theory in psychology about human cognition. The theory divides our cognitive processes into two groups: automatic and controlled processes. Any mental function fits into one or both of these categories. The amount of “processing capacity,” concentration, and effort required by a process is the basic criterion for determining if it’s a controlled or automatic process.

As we’ve already discussed automatic processing in terms of psychology, let’s discuss what controlled processing is and how the two differ.

Controlled Processes

A consciously initiated series of cognitive processes can be defined as a controlled process. To put it another way, when active attention is needed for a task, the mental process that directs that performance is said to be controlled.

Humans are designed to have a limited capability for consciously controlling behavior, which is usually used when they are confronted with unfamiliar situations for which they haven’t developed an instinctive response. This kind of process is frequently interrupted to conduct other duties due to the high level of attention required.

How Do the Two Differ?

Controlled processes are regarded to be slower than automatic processes as they demand effortful control. As a result, they can’t be run parallel with other controlled processes without some level of task switching or performance degradation.

Controlled processing has significant speed and multitasking limitations due to its capacity restraints.  The advantages of being able to easily construct, adapt and perform procedures in unique scenarios offset these constraints. This is particularly important when conditions necessitate reactions for which no automatic processes are already established.

Automatic processing is comparatively faster than controlled processing, can be done with less effort, is less easily inhibited by lethargy or other factors, and can entail parallel processing of information from multiple sensory channels. However, it takes much longer to develop and requires much more practice than controlled processing, and once developed, it’s much less easy to control.

Automatic processing requires time and practice to master. Consider how long it takes to learn to drive a car or even how long it takes to become proficient at learning to play the piano. Controlled processing may be set up much more quickly and in a range of different situations. All it requires is for the learner to pay attention and be conscious of what they are doing, and they will experience controlled processing.

Automatic Processing Vs. Effortful Processing

Our memory system works by receiving sensory information from the environment, organizing it, connecting new and preexisting concepts, and encoding it. This mental function can occur through effortful as well as automatic processing.

As we’ve already mentioned, automatic processing does not require you to put in the effort to memorize or process any information. This can involve encoding pieces of information related to frequency, space, time, vocabulary, and more.

Effortful processing is when you actively put in work and effort to process certain information. The most common example would be preparing for a test. However, in many cases, this memory can be short-lived, particularly if the processing is done under the influence of an external stressor.

As a course instructor, you need to understand how both of these processes play into your student’s learning. Active processing results in remembering concepts for longer, whereas effortful processing can add stress and hinder people’s mental capacity.

Benefits Of Automatic Processing

Automatic processing does not require contact monitoring or guidance. This makes it fast and efficient, taking up very little mental capacity. Automaticity permits us to engage with our surroundings in a familiar and comfortable manner. We know what is likely to happen in various scenarios as we gain more experience.

Automaticity is beneficial for mundane tasks like driving, completing chores, or any other repetitive motion task because it reduces your working memory by 90%, allowing you to complete other tasks or concentrate on the rest of the activities you need to complete on that day.

While taking a shower, many people consider their plans for the day. Showering is a daily, automatic routine; therefore, this is possible. It is efficient, allowing us to devote our selective attention to other vital tasks, such as making plans or preparing a mental to-do list. This is quite adaptable. The more things we can accomplish routinely, the more mental capacity we have for activities that need conscious awareness and focus.

Increased output and productivity have indeed been some of the most compelling arguments to support the benefits of automatic processing. Despite assertions of excellent quality based on superior skills and great effort resulting from controlled processing, automatic processing often lets people complete a production process with less unpredictability, leading to better product consistency.

Are There Any Cons to Automatic Processing?

Automatic processing results in people acting without thinking. They let their self-conscious takeover, and this can pose a threat to the efficacy of the outcomes of certain tasks. In turn, the probability of mistakes and errors rises. Most people revert to the most common and familiar solution to any problem. This can limit their ability to explore newer and better options.

These habits can be so habitual that you might not even remember doing them. This state of thinking is frequently manifested when you are doing daily chores or actions. For example, it is habitual nature for you to lock your car as a way of automatic processing, but in the case of being absent-minded, you will feel the need to double-check your action to confirm it.

This example shows how the automaticity of actions can lead to a lack of awareness, leading to behavioral repetition and a waste of time.

Examples Of Automatic Processing

Recognizing faces, speaking words, or navigating your way home, are examples of automatic processing. That’s because both occur without the user expressly intending to do so; both exist in the midst of several other processes, and neither can be easily prevented. These processes use the same cognitive pathways all of the time. These pathways can be inherent or created over time through consistent and rigorous training.

Most biological activities, such as breathing, obviously do not necessitate cognitive awareness. Other psychological processes, on the other hand, are performed through our subconscious. We reflexively label items or individuals as good or bad, for example. That is, we have the ability to perform automatic evaluation without needing to put in any conscious effort.

Some behaviors are elicited in reaction to certain cues in the environment. Motorists are aware that they must comply with yellow traffic signals. They also know they need to halt at red traffic signals and move ahead at green traffic signals. These behaviors can often become automatic as a consequence of the frequent practice. For instance, the automatic response to slow down and get yourself ready to stop at a yellow traffic signal.

Practicing Something Turns it into Second Nature

As a seasoned bike rider, you may be able to perform several bike-riding activities effortlessly without having to think about it. You can steer, brake, respond to automobiles on the road, and adjust speeds. That’s because years of experience have enabled you to do it instinctively and without being aware of what you’re doing.

Exercising with a regular routine also becomes an automatic processing behavior. Your body gets used to the motions and movements. Again, this can have a negative consequence since absent-mindedness can be a cause of injuries, or it can hinder your ability to progress and improve.

The preceding examples show how automatic processing can result in both advantages and disadvantages in everyday life. One result is that the link between our brain functions and the behaviors tied with our social surroundings can be contradictory at times, a thought-provoking event that generates a slew of further concerns.

Benefits of Controlled Processing

Controlled cognition is a methodical, purposeful, specific, and deliberative consciousness that has a clearly intentional cognitive impact on human action.  With controlled processing, people also have the right intention to perform deliberate activities. They can recall facts from memory with a concentration in a regulated way.

Controlled processing requires your full attention and concentration on the task at hand. It requires you to reflect on your goals or what you hope to achieve from them. Consider athletes, for example. Their training is focused on making progress and increasing their endurance, strength, technique, and accuracy. Training that yields beneficial outcomes necessitate that the exact movements be carried out with accuracy, which, in turn, necessitates controlled processing. To achieve the optimum results, even movements that are ingrained in our instinctive processing must be purposefully brought back into controlled processing.

In a workplace, controlled processing requires focus and self-reflection of whatever action an employee is performing. This not only ensures safety in the workplace but also ensures quality control and lowers the risk of errors.

In an educational environment, controlled processing is critical to understanding complex concepts. Students use controlled processing to memorize for tests and exams. Without controlled processing, they might find it difficult to retain useful and pertinent information.

Cons of Controlled Processing

Controlled processing behaviors have the disadvantage that individuals are considered to have a finite capacity for actively regulating their actions. Controlled processing has significant constraints on speed and the potential to have diverted attention because it is highly capacity-limited. Let’s talk about this in detail.

The quantity of incoming data a person can absorb or process at any point in time is referred to as their processing capacity. The perceived difficulty of a task is measured by its relative perceptual load. When performing a task with a lower load, one can focus less on the task at hand. When performing a task that demands a higher load, one must devote 100% of their attention to the task at hand. They will be unable to complete the assignment if they become sidetracked.

In learning, a controlled process would require the learner’s full focus and concentration. If these are not present, their productivity and ability to retain information can be negatively affected. Hence, controlled processing can add a strain on our cognitive processes.

Can Automatic and Controlled Processes Overlap?

A blend of automatic and controlled processes is used in certain actions. Brushing your teeth is one such example. You can think about brushing each tooth as you scrub it separately at any time, but the motion is mostly automated.

Similarly, playing any musical instrument requires a conscious effort to know where to place your fingers to play particular notes. Once you get used to the motion, it no longer requires a conscious effort. It becomes automated processing.

Since they incorporate elements of both sorts of processing or because the events are hard to characterize or analyze, some cognitive functions are challenging to identify as either automatic or controlled.

When learning a new language, for example, effort and attention are required in the beginning. With practice, eventually, people can become fluent in a foreign language. As a result, speaking and understanding that language eventually becomes an automatic process.

The same can be applied to other studying habits. Reinforcing a particular concept, accompanied by practical examples and helpful indicators, can turn a controlled process into an automatic process over time, with enough practice.

Frequently Asked Questions on Automatic Processing

What are the three types of automatic processing?

The three main types of automatic processing are habituation, priming, and mental accounting. Habituation occurs when we become familiar with something, like driving a car for example. Priming happens when we learn about something new, such as learning how to use a computer. Mental accounting is when we think about money differently due to differing values.

What is automatic and effortful processing?

Automatic and effortless processing occurs when we do things automatically and effortlessly. We don’t think about what we’re doing, instead, we just go through our daily routine. This kind of processing happens all the time. When we try to consciously control these processes, they become difficult and require effort.

What is the difference between automatic and controlled processing?

Automatic processing is when we do something automatically without thinking about what we’re doing. Controlled processing means that we think about our actions and decide whether they are appropriate for us. When we use automatic processing, we tend to act impulsively and may be unaware of how we feel about our decisions. Controlled processing has the opposite effect.

Is breathing an example of automatic processing?

Automatic processing occurs when we do something unconsciously, such as walking while talking on the phone. Breathing is one of our automatic processes, which means that we don’t think about how we breathe. We just do it automatically.


Automatic processing and controlled processing are two core functions of the cognitive activity of the brain. They often work in conjunction and can help decrease the burden on one’s mental capacity. Strategic use of these mental functions in processes such as studying or learning can help in improving cognitive performance.

Lisa Parmley
Lisa Parmley

Lisa Parmley is the founder of coursemethod.com. After gaining a Master's degree, she worked in research for about seven years. She started a training company in 2001, offering a course helping people pass a professional exam. That course has earned multiple 7 figures. She created SEO and authority site building training around 2007 which went on to earn well into the 6-figure mark.

She has 22+ years of experience in the trenches creating and selling online courses. Get help starting and growing your online course business here.

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