The Basic Idea
Imagine you are quickly driving down an empty highway. After a long trip, you are feeling a little groggy and your mind has started to wander off into your dinner plans. Feeling a rumble in your stomach, you decide to slide into the fast lane to get yourself home sooner. Out of the corner of your eye, you spot a large billboard with a close-up of a juicy burger: “Hungry? Visit Burger King at your next exit!”. You speed by the billboard, considering whether or not you’ll take that next exit to get yourself a cheeseburger. While you may not have noticed it, almost everything you did on that highway was a result of automatic thinking.
Automatic thinking is the unconscious, effortless, cognitive process that we use when we need a quick solution to a problem. In our example, you didn’t set out to actively read the billboard, but you still understood the message. Without knowing it, your brain automatically read the content, processed it, and contemplated the possibility of buying a burger. Do you ever feel like you’re running on autopilot? You’re likely experiencing automatic thinking.
While a subconscious process, automatic thinking is responsible for a variety of behaviors, including our automatic motor skills, implicit biases, rapid problem-solving, and ‘gut feelings’. In popular literature, automatic thinking is sometimes referred to as “System 1” or “System 1 thinking”. This is because automatic thinking contrasts and intermingles with our second system of thinking, which uses a more controlled, explicit, and methodical process to solve problems. “System 2 thinking” requires active focus and can easily be disrupted when we get distracted. We use this second system, called controlled thinking, to solve math problems, parallel park a car, or memorize a phone number.
Automatic Thinking: An instinctive, unconscious, highly efficient mental process that we have no control over or awareness of. It helps us automate our thought patterns and behavior. It is more accurate in areas where we have acquired significant information already.
Controlled Thinking: The slow, sequential, rules-based mental process which requires effortful attention. It helps us reason and come to general, analytic answers to questions.
System 1: A synonym for automatic thinking.
System 2: A synonym for controlled thinking.
Automatic thinking began with dual process theory, which is an overarching theory of how these two distinct cognitive systems operate and interact. William James is credited for first dividing the thinking process into two. He believed that there were two systems: associative reasoning, where we use memories to make inferences, and true reasoning, which we use to figure out novel experiences. While still a far cry from automatic thinking and controlled thinking, James did create the groundwork for conceptualizing thinking in a dual system framework.
Years of development led to another version of this theory, which was proposed by Peter Wason and Jonathan Evans in 1974. They proposed a different version of dual processing theory, with the two systems being analytic reasoning, a precursor to controlled thinking, and heuristic processing, a precursor to automatic thinking.
Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli psychologist, further expanded on dual process theory. Through multiple experiments, Kahneman built upon the dual processing theory, referring to the two modes as System 1 thinking, which is our intuitive, emotional, rapid response, and System 2 thinking, which is our slow, analytical and controlled thinking. Based on these initial theories, Kahneman built a career off of studying heuristics and biases, examining the bevy of ways that automatic thinking causes cognitive shortcuts and errors. This science was popularized in Kahneman’s book Thinking: Fast and Slow, where he eloquently outlines what effects automatic thinking can have in our lives and the world at large.
John Bargh, an American social psychologist, has had what may be the largest influence on automatic thinking research. Bargh systematically defined automatic thinking by breaking it down into four quadrants. We use Bargh’s strict definition to determine what is automatic thinking or controlled thinking.
The first quadrant is unawareness. We must be unaware of our thinking for it to be automatic. This means that typically, we don’t know our automatic thinking has kicked into gear until it’s processes are complete, which leads to some peculiar behaviors. The second quadrant outlines how automatic thinking is also unintentional, meaning we don’t actively turn on our automatic thinking. Instead, it involuntarily reacts to stimuli. The third facet Bargh outlines is that automatic thinking is cognitively efficient. This is why we typically rely on automatic thinking when we are mentally exhausted or need to solve a problem quickly. Finally, automatic thinking is difficult to control. We cannot prevent our automatic thinking from happening, meaning a person will engage in automatic thinking whether they like it or not. Using these four quadrants, the modern definition of automatic thinking was born.
Automatic thinking is incredibly pervasive in our lives. Since we are unaware of when we engage in automatic thinking, the overwhelming presence of it often goes unnoticed. Automatic thinking often manifests itself in a collection of cognitive biases, such as the availability heuristic and the affect heuristic. Typically, these biases allow us to speed up mental processes and come to easy, if not always correct, answers.
This ability to automate mental processes is incredibly important. It allows us to save our mental energy and focus our mental processes on things that actually require our attention. With the amount of stimuli in the world, it would be overwhelming if we didn’t relegate some of our actions to our automatic processes. Imagine how difficult it would be to walk if you had to consciously think through each step.
But to solely rely on automatic thinking can lead to negative outcomes. Automatic thinking allows us to create familiar situations by repeating the same thoughts over and over again until they generate default responses. While this can be useful, like for walking, these cognitive shortcuts can be detrimental if the information we are feeding our brains is faulty.
For example, multiple studies have found how implicit biases, a facet of automatic thinking, continue to promote many of the world’s injustices. Racism, sexism, and xenophobia are often fueled by automatic thinking, as stereotypes are often learned and ingrained into our unconscious minds at a young age through popular media. This leads to situations in which individuals, while not explicitly identifying their bias, behave in a biased manner. In cases like this, we need to combat our automatic thinking in order to prevent further injustices, which can be done through counteracting stereotypes and interacting with those different from ourselves.
All in all, automatic thinking is both incredibly helpful and incredibly dangerous. This is why learning about the uses and pitfalls of our heuristics and biases is vital to making correct decisions, as well as creating meaningful social impact.
While both automatic thinking and controlled thinking have been repeatedly shown to be real, scientifically backed phenomena, the two systems have made the rounds in the pop psychology circuit, which has led to a few common misconceptions. In order to fully understand automatic thinking, these misconceptions need to be debunked.
The first misconception is that automatic thinking and controlled thinking occur in a step-by-step, hierarchical, and separate manner. Another common myth promotes that these two systems of thinking are completely separated. These misconceptions have led to incorrect claims stating that 90% or more of all mental processes are handled by automatic thinking. In reality there is no evidence of this percentage, nor that the two systems operate in this manner. In fact, the two systems typically work together simultaneously to solve problems, and are vital to the functioning of each other.
Another myth is the tendency to assume that automatic thinking is the only system that is subject to error, bias, and failure. While automatic thinking can lead us to error, often ignored is how controlled processing systems also fail.
Let’s take a study which was done to examine what caused doctors to make diagnostic errors. For years, researchers hypothesized that automatic thinking was the cause of these issues, as doctors are usually exhausted and in a rush. It would then make sense that failures are due to sapped logical processes and reliance on mental shortcuts. Therefore, doctors were advised to slow down, gather information, and formulate a logical response. However, when researchers examined this claim they found that engaging in controlled processes was actually less accurate than doctors utilizing cognitive shortcuts and trusting their trained intuition. In this case, using automatic thinking improved heart disease detection accuracy by 15-25%, casting doubt on the theory that intuition is more prone to error.
Often, our automatic processes are explicitly designed to help us solve problems effectively and accurately, and should not be discounted. As stated by Kahneman in Thinking: Fast and Slow, “system 1 is not a machine for making errors, it usually functions beautifully”.
Related TDL Content
For a deeper look into one of the key academics who helped forward research into automatic thinking and its subsequent heuristics, check out The Decision Lab’s piece on Daniel Kanhemann.
As we age, our minds can become a little rusty. This can leave older demographics more susceptible to a variety of scams and frauds by predatory actors. All of us largely rely on our automatic thinking, and this is especially true for older populations due to a decline in decision-making capabilities. In this piece, TDL Senior Consultant Jayden Rae analyzes how this decline occurs and how we can combat automatic thinking tendencies in senior populations to avoid further financial fraud.
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