Controlled vs. Automatic Thinking and Behavior
March 19, 2007
Human behavior can be the result of intentional voluntary cognition or less controlled automatic cognition. In the past psychologists believed that we engage in either controlled thinking or automatic thinking, but newer studies reveal that we can engage in both to varying degrees. I maintain that this co-occurrence is commonly experienced during activity on the Internet, especially in individuals who are well acquainted with its use. For those who grew up with a computer like me, browsing the Internet has become a second nature, or automatic process, not unlike driving a car or riding a bike. However, unlike the latter activities one must be in conscious control when seeking out information. To complete the analogy, it would be more akin to the automatic process of driving a car whilst consciously seeking correct directions on a map.
If you were to observe an older adult lacking expertise with computers and someone highly familiar with them, both attempting to locate a particular type information, you would find the latter to succeed many times faster. True, this is partly a result of one knowing where to click and the other not being so sure, but another aspect to this situation is that the more accustomed individual no longer has consciously think about what the next step is in obtaining the desired piece of information. Often you will find older computer users, even those with many years experience, still speaking to themselves “double click explorer, type the address, hit enter…” etc. Just as such an individual is on one extreme of the spectrum, the opposite extreme is occupied by the computer user who has lost some degree self-awareness in their behavior. These are the individuals who will find themselves browsing the Internet for hours unaware of the amount of time that has passed by and likely not accomplishing their goals. Automatic behavior occurs when we’re not particularly motivated to avoid error and when we are unable to focus on a particular task. This seems to be shared by both the heavy Internet user as well as some with attention deficit disorder.
It doesn’t take much to notice this trend in the development of technology. Simply take the evolution of the Firefox browser as an example. Tabs were created so we could flip from one page to another while each is loading; weather reports and email notification were added to keep us updated, and so on. RSS feeds are now the newest popular innovation allowing users to know instantaneously when their favorite websites are updated. Ultimately, these share the common goal of time-management in combination with multitasking. Certainly we must question what effect this will have on our ability to manage controlled and automatic thinking. I would postulate that although creating a degree of frustration, it is also generating a challenge which we as a continuously developing animal will be exposed to ever more frequently. Perhaps an outcome of this may be a more developed form of cognitive processing.