Running on autopilot? Everyday Automaticity.

autopilotSometimes, I wonder who is driving, me or the autopilot!

This last week or two have been a bit busy. As a result, I suspect I have been leaning a bit too much on my autopilot. On top of the day to day stuff, all sorts has been going on – I have had a big grant application due in, a new member of staff starting and end of teaching session marking, checking, and paperwork are all being done. (I love teaching, but I hate paperwork). I’m also getting ready to visit another university to comment on their courses and preparing to help evaluate one our own institution is launching. Finally, one of my PhD student this week defended their thesis – basically explaining to an independent judge why they should be given a doctorate. Alongside this me, my partner, baby Annabelle and big sister Katherine all went camping for the first time this weekend (having a great time, but a busy, not-much-sleep one!). This is all good stuff, but it means sometimes I forgot to be conscious of what I was doing. Whats the psychology behind this, and can we do anything about it?

This week, I tried to notice the times when I had simply responded without really thinking, or behaved with little conscious input. The list was pretty bad. Here are some examples-

1.I was short with a colleague who made an understandable mistake

2.I routinely (and unthinkingly!) responded to my kid sticking her finger up her nose with the exact same ‘fingers out of noses’ phrase, despite the fact said phrase clearly didn’t work.

3.I ate my lunch three times this week without really noticing how it tasted

4.I picked up my workbag, forgetting to grab the other bag containing celebratory fizz to give to my student. This was not so bad, except I had to ring my partner to see if I had actually left it at home, or picked it up and subsequently left it the train station!

To me, these are all signs I am relying a bit too much on automatic behaviour.

Are we all running on autopilot a bit too much? Probably. Share on X

Just ticking along

Many psychologists, notably John Bargh[1], suggest much of our behaviours happens with little or no conscious input. The argument is that around 80% of our behaviour is automatic. Before you dismiss this, think how often you respond to a action (stimulus) with a set behaviour (response). When someone last asked you how you were, you probably said ‘Fine thanks’ without giving the question due consideration (if you are British at least, where this is a standard hello exchange, which you don’t expect an honest or full response to!). You have probably done the equivalent of telling someone not to stick their finger up their nose too – giving advice because ‘thats what you say’ rather than as a reflective response. You also look both ways before crossing a road, do your seatbelt up whilst sitting in the car and, each workday, turn on your computer, make a coffee and check your email pretty consistently. You probably do most of these things without noticing!

Routine and habit is a big part of behaving on autopilot, but Bargh goes further – showing that primes in our environment can trigger other behaviours, in subtle ways. For instance, being subconsciously shown words related to being old can make us walk slower [2], thinking about the category of clever people can make us smarter, and holding a cup of coffee in an elevator can make us think the person we subsequently meet is warmer (as the warm coffee primes the cognitive construct of ‘warmth’, which we then apply to the person) [3]. We don’t know these primes are having these effects on us – they just happen.

Leading me into disaster?

Running on autopilot is not all bad. Frankly, we cannot concentrate on everything – making a coffee on autopilot whilst thinking about something else is not a bad thing. Most of the time! Being short with a colleague simply because they caused you frustration, or failing to parent consciously is not so good. The fact that primes can also shift your behaviour and judgements about is also worrying. I wouldn’t want my response to a new business collaborator to be shaped by my choice of beverage! The good news is that you can, to some extent, try and overcome working on autopilot but not all of the time, and not in all domains. The trick is to (i) realise you may be being biased in your judgements and (ii) pick the areas you least want this to happen (you can read more about these biases and how to overcome them in the Judgement PocketBook).

The automaticity literature is another area I think I’ll be exploring in more depth soon – a lot of my own work has this slant to it these days – but it’s worth noting not everyone agrees with the idea we are affected by primes and automatic processes to the same extent that Bargh does. Whilst I recognise these concerns, I also think it’s hard to deny the fact that, for a good chunk of the day, most of us are basically running on autopilot

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[1] Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54(7), 462.

[2] Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230–244.

[3] Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322(5901), 606–607.

3 thoughts on “Running on autopilot? Everyday Automaticity.”

    1. Wow, thank you for the lovely link to my post! How kind.

      It is indeed interesting to realize how much time we spend on autopilot. Sometimes it’s helpful because we don’t have to tire out our brains and deplete our willpower supplies but other times, as you point out, it means we aren’t always making the best choices or actively participating in our own life.

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