The World of Work Project

Automaticity: When People Do Things Automatically

Automaticity is the process by which our brains and bodies help us do things almost automatically and subconsciously. By automating in this way we retain spare mental capacity for higher level tasks.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Automaticity

Automaticity is the ability to do things without really focusing on them. When humans have developed habits or become unconsciously competent at certain things, they generally are able to do them without any conscious effort. The body is so comfortable with the task at hand that it does it without thinking about it. This leaves the brain free to focus on higher activities.

Where humans perform tasks automatically we may not even be aware that we are doing them. We may not intentionally start doing them and we may not be able to control whether or not we do them. While actions or behaviors that we undertake automatically have these things in common, they come about in different ways.

A guitar - muscle memory is a form of automaticity
Muscle memory helps automate fine motor skills, like playing a guitar.

Muscle Memory

One well known form of automaticity is muscle memory. Through repeated use of the body in a certain way, process that at first required significant conscious effort and focus become second nature. Examples of muscle memory exist in many sports. They also appear in relation to playing musical instruments, using fine tools, or typing.

Language

Language is a hugely complex thing. When we don’t know a language well it takes a lot of concentration to communicate. As we learn though, the process becomes more and more automatic. Once people are fluent in a language they take it for granted. They can fully engage in the content that is being communicated without paying any conscious effort to understanding the words, structuring or grammar used.

Highway Hypnosis

Highway hypnosis is the name given to the act of slightly switching off when driving on a boring road. Most people have experienced this form of automaticity.

It’s possible to drive safely for hours, accelerating and braking as required and obeying all the rules and yet to remember hardly any of the journey. This hypnosis occurs because the act of driving in safe and boring environments is something the body can automate. This automation leaves the mind free to think about and focus on other tasks.

A highway - driving is often a form of automaticity
Many people drive fairly automatically on highways.

Unconscious Competence

Unconscious Competence is a phrase that you may have seen in various learning theories. We use it here to refer to tasks that we actually do better at when we don’t think about them.

There are some things that the body just knows how to do that we get worse at if we concentrate on them. Examples of these from sport include free-throws in basketball and putting in golf. The more athletes think about and concentrate on these activities, the worse they do at them.

Intuition

Many people think that intuition is a bit of a strange and special skill, or it’s fictional. In reality a lot of “intuition” is simply automaticity. It’s simply an automatic processing of a situation without conscious thought.

When using “intuition”, individuals may be interpreting minor changes in the voice, tone or even facial muscles of others. Alternatively, they may be making calculated and reasonable decisions at high speed without being conscious of doing so.

Learning More

Automaticity is related to habits, which are powerful things. Once we understand them and how long it takes to form them, we can learn to replace our bad habits, so that we achieve better outcomes.

Habits also play a key role in personal behavior and behavior change. There are several different models that look at this type of change including the Kubler-Ross change curve and Transtheoretical Model.

You might also find this podcast on the Kubler-Ross change curve of interest. It covers some aspects of individual psychological change. It also reflects on the roles of leaders in leading through change.

The World of Work Project View

Automaticity is a helpful fact of life. The fact that we can build new habits and automate new processes is very helpful to us as individuals. Taking the time to understand the habits you have, and the ones you wish to have, may be a useful way to start a program of personal behavior change.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on general reading and there are no specific references for it. If you are aware of any source materials for this content, please let us know.

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