A conscious process can be defined as a mental act that an individual is aware of, intends to carry out (i.e., initiated by free will), is effortful (i.e., cognitively demanding) and can be controlled (i.e., stopped) (Logan & Cowan, 1984).
Typically, this occurs when dealing with novel situations, such as learning a foreign language, in which a person has little or no previous knowledge or experience. Conscious processes could therefore be said to enable a person to respond to, and adapt to, unfamiliar changes in their external environment (Cleeremans, 2001).
In contrast, an automatic process can be defined as an act that occurs effortlessly, does not require conscious guidance, is not intentional and is uncontrollable (Blair, 2002).
For example, looking at an apple will automatically result in the perception of the colour green. In some cases however, such as the acquisition of a skill through repeated effort, a period of conscious intent and guidance may be required before a behavior can occur automatically and without effort.
In this essay, we shall explore how both conscious and automatic processes play a role in everyday behavior, focusing within the field of social psychology. We shall conclude with a discussion of how much of our everyday behavior is under our conscious control, and how much of our behavior occurs automatically.
I See, Therefore I Do?
Research suggests that human beings have an innate ability to imitate those around them. Meltzoff and Moore (1983) for example, found that from one month of age, babies were able to mimic facial expressions by opening their mouth or sticking their tongue out.
A similar ability has also been found in children who were shown to behave more aggressively when observing an aggressive act (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1961), and even in adults who have a tendency to yawn when they observe others yawning (Provine, 1986).
This apparently innate and persistent ability to imitate others, has led some researchers to propose that the representations used in perceiving another person’s behavior are connected with (Berkowitz, 1984), or the same as (Carver, Ganellen, Froming & Chambers, 1983), the representations used when behaving in the same way.
However, although an associative connection between perception and the priming of a behavior has been suggested as far back as the 1800s (i.e., William James’ “ideomotor action” (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999)), it has not been until fairly recently that neurological studies have been able to provide evidence to support the idea that such a connection does in fact exist.
Primate studies for example, have shown that the same neurons which are activated when a monkey observes an action are also activated when they perform the same action (i.e., mirror neurons) (Rizzolatti & Arbib, 1998).
In humans, neuroimaging studies have produced similar results for mentally simulated activities such as running or weightlifting (Jeannerod, 1994), thereby suggesting that mirror neurons may also exist in the human brain (Gazzola & Keysers, 2009).
The significance of these findings is that they provide a biologically plausible explanation for how stimuli in one’s external environment, can, via perception, automatically lead to the generation of internal representations that could, potentially, affect how an individual then behaves.
Automatic Mind, Automatic Behaviour?
Although neurological studies may provide evidence in support of a link between environmental stimuli, perception and the priming of a corresponding behavior, they do not reveal how likely a primed behavior is to actually occur.
As a result, in order to fully examine the principle that “thinking is for doing” (i.e., ideomotor action) as William James had proposed (Dijksterhuis & Bargh, 2001), experimental studies involving real, rather than imagined, actions, are needed.
One such study was carried out by Bargh, Chen and Burrows (1996) who found that when participants were primed with rude words (e.g., impolite, obnoxious), they were more likely to interrupt a conversation than participants who had been primed with polite words (e.g., respectful, considerate).
Similar results have also been obtained with participants taking part in a recreation of the Milgram experiment (Milgram, 1963). In this study, participants who had been primed with hostile words were found to administer stronger electric shocks to confederates than participants who had been primed with non-hostile words (Carver et al, 1983).
In addition to traits influencing behavior, exposures to words that are stereotypical of a given category have also been shown to affect how an individual behaves. Bargh et al. (1996) for example, found that when participants were primed with words related to the stereotype “elderly” (e.g., bingo, Florida), participants walked more slowly and even became more forgetful (Bless and Forgas, 2000).
The significance of the Bargh et al. (1996) and Carver et al. (1983) studies is that they show how being primed with a certain trait (e.g., rudeness), or with words stereotypical of a given category (e.g., the elderly), can automatically affect different aspects of behavior and do so unintentionally without an individual being aware of the effect that those primes are having.
One could infer from these findings that an individual somehow obtains more information from an environmental stimulus than that stimulus appears to provide at face value.
Perhaps the most likely explanation which may account for this additional information, is that a perceived stimulus also activates information which is related to it such as attitudes, previously encountered examples/experiences (i.e., exemplars), beliefs and expectations, which have been stored in a person’s memory as a result of their previous life experiences (Ferguson & Bargh, 2004).
Importantly, as the aforementioned studies seem to suggest, the activation of this additional knowledge appears to occur via an automatic process, one which does not require awareness, intention or effort.
Therefore, if we accept this line of reasoning, one could argue that the perception of any stimulus, even one that an individual is not consciously aware of, will also result in the automatic activation of related information that could influence behavior.
One study for example, found that when participants were subliminally primed with an African American male face, they were later more likely to respond in a hostile manner to the experimenter than participants who had been primed with a Caucasian male face (Bargh et al., 1996).
Mood also appears to be affected by subliminal stimuli. Bargh et al. (1999) for example, found that participants produced happier mood ratings after being subliminally primed with positive words than they did after priming with negative words.
These subliminal priming studies suggest that even an unconscious exposure to an environmental stimulus is sufficient to prime a stereotype or a mood, and that once activated, can remain active (i.e., primed) for a period of time after exposure to the stimulus, even when that stimulus has been removed from one’s immediate environment.
The implications of this have wide and far-reaching social ramifications. If a stereotype becomes activated for example, then any information associated with that stereotype (e.g., African American male and hostility) could potentially affect not only how an individual behaves, but also, how they interpret the behavior of others.
One could argue therefore, that many of the judgements and impressions which we form of others actually occur automatically and without our awareness, even though at the time they may appear to have been derived from a conscious process.
Are We Slaves To Automaticity?
Whilst the studies presented thus far appear to suggest an innate tendency towards automaticity, one must be careful in interpreting such findings because these studies have largely focused on processes that do not involve motivational or goal-directed behavior.
As a result, we shall now examine these components because all human beings have their own hopes, dreams and goals which they wish to attain, and these, quite possibly, could then affect how they interact with the world in which they live.
Perhaps one of the strongest moderators of automaticity, are the perceived risks or consequences (i.e., disincentives) of a given behavior. Macrae and Johnston (1998) for example, found that priming participants with the construct of “helpfulness” led to those participants displaying more helpful behavior, as judged by whether a participant picked up a pen that a confederate had “accidentally” dropped while walking in front of them.
However, when the dropped pens were covered in ink (i.e., were leaking), fewer participants picked up the dropped pen even though they had been primed with “helpfulness”.
Thus, the disincentive of picking up a leaky pen (i.e., getting your hands dirty), appeared to override or inhibit a primed behavioral response (i.e., being helpful) which the participants had otherwise acted upon when the pen was not leaking.
If we step back momentarily to view these findings from a wider perspective, the ability to inhibit an automatic behavioral response may have evolved as a survival mechanism, such as to prevent self-injury or harm.
Evidence from neurological studies suggests that the frontal lobes may be responsible for implementing this inhibitory control, as damage to this region of the brain has been associated with a reduced ability to inhibit socially undesirable behavior (Chow, 2000).
In a similar “pen dropping” experiment to the study previously described, Macrae and Johnston (1998) primed participants with “helpfulness”, but also informed each participant that they needed to hurry to the next room. Those who were given the goal to hurry, were found to be less helpful (i.e., picked up fewer pens) than those who were not given a goal to hurry.
Goals have also been shown to reduce the formation of negative first impressions as a result of negative stereotypes. Neuberg (1989) for example, found that when participants were asked to give their impression of a target person, they were less likely to base that impression on stereotypical information if they had set a goal to form an accurate impression beforehand.
If we accept the findings of these goal-directed behavior studies however, then we suddenly find ourselves presented with an interesting dilemma. For if goals can determine one’s behavior, then surely this would suggest that environmental stimuli have a minimal effect on producing automatic behavior.
Yet, the evidence presented throughout this essay, shows that this is clearly not the case. So how can the results of Macrae and Johnston (1998) and Neuberg (1989) be accounted for?
One possible explanation is that when a person forms a goal, they also form a representation of that goal. Therefore, just as with any other representation (e.g., a stereotype), goal representations may also be subject to automatic activation (Bargh et al., 1999).
If true, this would accommodate many of the automatic behaviors we have discussed thus far, whilst also implying that the way an individual behaves is not solely determined by a given stimulus, but crucially, how that stimulus relates to any goals which they are currently pursuing (Kunda, 1990).
How Automatic Is Everyday Behaviour?
In this essay we have examined the arguments for automatic behavior, and explored some of the consciously driven moderators of it.
As a result of the apparent interplay between these two processes, one is naturally led to the question of how automatic our everyday behavior really is? In an attempt to answer this question, we shall begin by looking at what is often thought of as the dominant process-conscious processes.
Conscious processes, as some research suggests, may in fact be a limited resource that can only be used sparingly throughout a given day. Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven and Tice (1998) for example, found that when subjects were instructed to engage in an act of self-control (e.g., not eat the cookies in front of them), they gave up sooner on a subsequent frustrating task than the control subjects who were allowed to eat the cookies.
Other acts of self-control such as suppressing emotional reactions, proofreading a written text or suppressing a particular thought, were also shown to impair performance on subsequent self-control tasks.
In effect, by exerting willpower (i.e., a conscious effortful process) on one task, the participants became less able to exert willpower on a separate unrelated task. Interestingly, this effect has also been demonstrated even when the participants were just watching others exert willpower (Ackerman, Goldstein, Shapiro & Bargh, 2009).
These studies suggest that not only are conscious processes a limited resource which may become quickly depleted through use, but also, that they may need time to recharge before reaching a level at which they can be used again.
This “recharging” process may be related to the amount of glucose available to the brain, as other studies have shown that participants who engage in acts of willpower experience a reduction in blood sugar levels and impaired self-control in subsequent tasks.
If however, participants are given a sweetened beverage after their first act of willpower, no impairments of self-control are found on subsequent tasks (Gailliot, Baumeister, DeWall, Maner, Plant & Tice, 2007).
As a result of such findings, Baumeister et al. (1998) have proposed that 95% of our everyday behavior occurs due to automatic processes, with just 5% being attributable to conscious processes. One may be justified however, in arguing that these percentages are likely to fluctuate in line with one’s dietary habits.
Human behavior appears remarkably susceptible to priming from the external environment. Perceived traits, stereotypes and observable stimuli can all influence the way we behave in an automatic and unintentional manner. Furthermore, even a stimulus which can not be consciously perceived can also influence behavior and continue to do so even in its absence.
There does however, appear to be some regulatory mechanism, albeit a frail one, that enables us to remain conscious and sentient beings rather than just merely stimulus-response automatons.
As a result, even though as much as 95% of our behavior may occur automatically, ultimately, evolution has determined that the little conscious control which we have is all that is needed for us to think and function effectively in our environment.
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Reviewed – 25th March 2016