What Is Automaticity?

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Have you ever done something without really thinking, such as brushing your teeth or driving to work? For many, those everyday routines are things they can do almost automatically, with minimal cognitive effort. People often refer to this as being "zoned out" or on "autopilot." This ability to do something without really thinking is an example of a phenomenon that psychologists call automaticity.

What Is Automaticity?

People develop habits to deal with complex tasks in different areas of their everyday lives. As a result, they will go on "autopilot" and do those things without really thinking.

The ability to act without really thinking happens when a behavior becomes over-learned. If you practice an action over and over again, you eventually become so skilled at the task that you can perform it with little or no thought.

Driving and walking are examples of actions that become automatic. When you sit down in your car to drive, you don't have to think about how to start the engine, how to move the gear shift, or how to back out of your driveway.

When you walk, you don't have to consciously think about every movement or remind yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The behavior is so over-learned and over-practiced that it is simply second nature.

Benefits of Automaticity

This autopilot thinking can be beneficial. For example, it frees up our attentional resources so we don't become overwhelmed by even the simplest of tasks.

Efficiency

By slipping into this automated mode for routine tasks, people are able to function quickly and efficiently in their daily lives without having to devote attention to every tiny detail. Just imagine how laborious your day would be if you had to carefully remember and think about how to drive a car to get to work or how to walk across campus to get to class.

Thanks to learning, practice, and repetition, repeated behaviors can become automatic.

Comfort in Different Environments

Automaticity also allows people to feel comfortable and familiar with different environments. Through our experiences, we learn what is common and expected in a variety of similar yet different situations.

As Wheatley and Wegner point out in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, "When we walk into a grocery store, we know automatically how things are supposed to go. We go in, grab a cart, pick food off the shelf, line up for a cashier who will take our money for the food, and we can go home." It's this familiarity that can support comfort and confidence.

Risks of Automaticity

While automaticity has its benefits, it can also have its downsides. It introduces an element of danger and makes people prone to mistakes.

Automatic thinking can be a risk in many areas of our lives, from making costly errors at work to the more mundane, day-to-day dangers, such as the busy street we have to cross every morning to get to work.

As the action becomes so routine and habitual, a person might neglect to really check traffic before stepping out into the road, for example.

Minimizing Risks

Researchers have discovered some helpful tactics that can help pull people out of this autopilot mode and tune in to what's going on around them.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one tactic that can help combat automaticity. Bringing awareness to the present moment can help you interrupt automatic behaviors that have developed.

One way to stay engaged is by introducing novelty and varying routines. For example, a 2021 study highlighted how job rotation among a group of nurses was linked to job engagement and satisfaction.

Instead of having an employee perform the same repetitive task all day, employers might design organizational routines that vary tasks or even rotate workers between different tasks. At a bank, for example, an employee might periodically shift from dealing with customers to balancing cash drawers, helping new customers open accounts, or assisting people with loan applications.

Shifting attention between tasks breaks up the repetition and helps draw workers out of autopilot mode.

Double-Checking With Intention

Some professionals, such as healthcare workers and airline pilots, utilize a verbal double-check system where workers repeat vital information to a witness. However, researchers have found that such procedures are not always fail-safe.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) utilizes an approach designed to make this checklist system more reliable by engaging multiple senses in the checklist process. Workers read checklist items aloud, visually check each item, and then physically touch each control or sensor.

The goal is that by utilizing multiple checks, pilots will be less likely to fall into the trap of automatic thinking and be more cognizant of potential problems or errors.

A Word From Verywell

Automaticity might not be easy to overcome, but researchers suggest that being aware of it and consciously taking steps to avoid it when it poses risks might be the best solution. Instead of zoning out during your daily commute, for example, make an effort to tune in and really pay attention to your journey and what's happening in the world around you. This practice in awareness and mindfulness comes with its own mental and physical health benefits.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Kang Y, Gruber J, Gray JR. Mindfulness and de-automatization. Emotion Review. 2013;5(2):192-201. doi:10.1177/1754073912451629

  4. Platis C, Ilonidou C, Stergiannis P, Ganas A, Intas G. The job rotation of nursing staff and its effects on nurses’ satisfaction and occupational engagement. In: Vlamos P, ed. GeNeDis 2020. Vol 1337. Springer International Publishing; 2021:159-168. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-78771-4_18

  5. Hewitt T, Chreim S, Forster A. Double checking: A second look. J Eval Clin Pract. 2016;22(2):267-74. doi:10.1111/jep.12468

  6. Federal Aviation Administration. Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge: Aeronautical Decision-Making.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.