What is an automatic process in psychology? (A definitive guide)

In this blog we will answer the question “what is an automatic process in Psychology” and deliberate on its components, risks and benefits.

What is an automatic process in Psychology?

An automatic process in Psychology refers to the Automatic information processing, not requiring any attention and happens at a subconscious level, means it happens automatically.

It is a mental cognitive process with the following characteristics:-

  • fast
  • parallel 
  • efficient 
  • requires little cognitive effort
  • does not require active control or attention by the subject

It just happens! Automatic processes are

  • Not conscious (no conscious effort is required to maneuver)
  • Unintentional (no motive is required)
  • Effortless (no effort is required)
  • Uncontrollable (when they initiate they cannot be stopped)

Automatic process is also known as a reflex response, where the person instantly without thinking acts in a predicted way. Mostly these automatic processes are universal, same for all people in typical situations. 

An example is driving. Driving is an automatic response, it is hard to learn, difficult at times to control in traffic and certain weather conditions, but the mechanism of driving itself is an automatic process, where the driver without thinking shifts gears, applies brakes and accelerates when required. Going to work or driving familiar routes daily, is when the driver automatically turns and takes the road without even thinking twice. 

He/she may also be thinking about many other things, their mind far away from the road and the traffic, but still they will be stopping at red lights and following the road signs. 

Why does this happen? 

This happens because there is only one mind in which conscious and unconscious components are interrelated. Even our most reasonable thoughts and subsequent actions stem from automatic, unconscious processes.

Where it all began!

In the 1970’s it all began when the human mind is complemented by two information processing systems; the controlled system and the uncontrolled system. 

  1. The Controlled System

This system encompasses all those processes that require deliberation and reflection. That is why it is called the “reflective” structure, because it is intentional and under the conscious control of the person.

  1. The Automatic System

This system is also called the “reflex” where all information processing is being conducted automatically, without the consciousness and the person is not even aware of it.

Many of our processes are automatic and we carry them out daily. For example, walking, running, speaking, lifting objects, sitting, driving, ducking for an oncoming object, etc. 

Cognitive Automaticity

If you have read this message, then it means you just went through an automatic process. This process is voluntary and does not require any effort on your part. This also shows that reading itself is an automatic process.

The ability to function without thinking is called automaticity. 

Risks of Automatic Process

When things are carried out without thinking, they do pose a threat or danger to the efficacy of the outcomes. The probability of mistakes and errors increases. 

When we drive without even thinking, the danger of an accident rises, if we are walking to work automatically taking the right route, but can also bump into someone causing self injury or harm to another.

Even pilots can have a toll that can cause major problems in their duties if they run on an auto mode during flights. 

Finding a solution to a problem which is the most familiar and common one, known as mental set psychology can also be an automatic response.

How to reduce the risks imposed by automatic processes?

A routine alter is very important to bring about novelty and break the monotony of the automatic process. Driving along a familiar route can be rectified by taking a new route to work and alternate between different routes.

Breaking up tasks can be beneficial as well, as it provides a chance to tackle each component of the task separately, treating each as different. This enables the attention to suddenly rejuvenate and concentrate on the task, thus severing the automatic response.

Paying attention and physically getting yourself around can help as well. The pilots are never alone and one or the other is checking manuals and controls, physically touching them. 

Benefits of Automatic Process

When we are in the automatic mode, we declutter our attention bank. We do not need to focus on details, each and every stimuli is not to be accounted for. With the decluttering comes more time to think afresh.

During driving, we do not have to concentrate on the steps of how to drive a car, concentrating on each detail, how to steer, press the accelerator, apply brakes, how much speed is to be maintained and when to suddenly stop or let someone pass.

Same is the case of visiting our regular stores, knowing which counters to reach and where and how to pay.

These are all learnt responses and by doing them over and over again they become automatic.

Therefore, an automatic process is beneficial for us to maintain our routine tasks, carry them out efficiently, without any burden on our senses. 

In this blog we have answered the question “what is an automatic process in Psychology” and deliberated on its components, risks and benefits.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What is an example of an automatic process?

Examples of automatic processes include motor skills, tasks that involve procedures and reading. Driving being one prime example

How does a mental process become automatic?

Mental processes become Automatic processes when people are consciously exposed to a stimulus, and they are not aware that this stimulus may have an impact on behavior.

Titles to read 

  • Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience

by E. Bruce Goldstein

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

  • Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications

by John Anderson


  • www.springer.com
  • https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-automaticity-2795018