I want to begin with a distinction that I think is fundamental to our thinking about the mind and yet is not adequately characterized by philosophers or psychologists (the latter will beg to differ). This is the distinction between automaticity and control. These concepts are like that of attention: they identify fundamental features of mind, seem to be exemplified in simple phenomena that we grasp intuitively, and yet are invoked theoretically without adequate analysis. We’ll return to attention in detail in a later post, but I believe you need to understand control and automaticity before you can fully understand attention. The ideas of automaticity and control are also central to our understanding of agency as well. After all, action is an experssion of the agent’s control and yet actions can also be done automatically.
There are related terms that creep up in the vicinity, some mundane, some quasi technical. These include: mere happenings, involuntary, intentional, stimulus driven, goal-directed, voluntary and so on. I propose to ignore these concepts in favor of speaking just of automaticity and control, although I do not claim that the latter pair covers everything invoked in the prior list. How then should we characterize automaticity and control?
Let me mention how these ideas figure in our thinking about the mind by noting a difference between actively looking for something and something’s popping out to you. You look for a friend in a crowd, but unfortunately, she is wearing clothing of a similar nondescript color as others. She’s effectively camouflaged. So, you visually scan, trying to find her. This is effortful and something that involves your control: how you scan seems to be deliberate, voluntary (you see me invoking the related concepts here…no analysis yet!). If your friend were instead wearing a bright, neon pink jacket, you would locate her easily. Here, she might visually pop-out, grabbing your attention automatically we might say. You can’t help but notice her.
Hopefully, that example is enough to acknowledge that in a simple mundane task (visual search), we can divide two types of phenomena in terms of automaticity and control.
What have psychologists to say about this? An important discussion is that of Walt Schneider and Richard Shiffrin (Walt is a member of the CNBC and in psychology at Pitt). In a seminal 1977 paper in Psychological Review (“Controlled and Automatic Human Information Processing: 1. Detection, Search, and Attention”), they provide definitions of controlled and automatic processes. On automatic processes, they suggest:
An automatic process can be defined…as the activation of a sequence of nodes with the following properties: (a) The sequence of nodes (nearly) always becomes active in response to a particular input configuration, where the inputs may be externally or internally generated and include the general situational context. (b) The sequence is activated automatically without the necessity of active control or attention by the subject (2).
They then define control as follows: “[a] controlled process is a temporary sequence of nodes activated under control of, and through attention by, the subject” (2). As this definition will not be adequate for philosophical purposes, we’ll need to look elsewhere.
John Bargh has written quite a bit on automaticity and the notion is quite prevalent in certain areas of social psychology. Gordon Logan has a detailed theory of automaticity as well, but let’s focus on Schneider and Shiffrin’s ideas. The core idea seems to be this: we define automaticity in terms of control and then control in terms of attention. Since I wanted to use automaticity and control to understand attention (recall our visual search case), this analysis doesn’t help me. Moreover, I think automaticity and control have a more essential connection to agency. That’s the starting point of how I think about the notions.
An important step is to realize that we shouldn’t talk about a process as being automatic or controlled in itself. Rather, a process can be said to be automatic or controlled in respect of the features that it exemplifies. Thus, we relativize application of the concepts in respect of features: a process can be controlled in respect of feature F while automatic in respect of feature G. This is a proposal about how we should regiment certain theoretical terms in cognitive science. The payoff is that it allows for characterizations of process that plausibly exemplify both automaticity and control. Agency is one such type of process: many things that we do have automatic and controlled features, say reaching for that specific cup. Where I intentionally reach for that cup, I exert a type of agentive control, but many aspects of my reaching are (thankfully!) automatic: the kinematics of the reach, the precise grip I form, the sequence of joint rotations, etc.
The following definitions then are roughly stated but for our purposes, suffice to tie the ideas to agency in light of the relativization just mentioned (a finessed definition can be found in the paper linked below). I am sure you will come up with compelling counterexamples, but let’s start with the proposals, and perhaps discuss them in comments. These definitions concern processes in which the agent is in some sense a participant (they are attributed to the agent). They can be adapted to talk about control and automaticity in brain regions (exercise for later). Thus:
Process P is controlled in respect of its feature F iff P’s having/being F is a result of the agent’s intending that there be a P having F
Process P is automatic in respect of its feature F iff P’s having F is not controlled in respect of F.
A fully automatic process is one that does not exemplify any controlled features.
Going back to our reaching case, the behavior of reaching for that cup, an action process, is controlled in respect of its exemplifying that action property (namely being a reaching for that cup) precisely because the agent intended to reach for that cup. Of course, we need the standard qualifiers for causal deviance, temporal variables etc., but let’s assume the necessary qualifiers for sake of argument. Other aspects of the action can be automatic to the extent they are not intended (controlled). So, the process involving a precise rotation of the hand, a precise grip, a precise kinematics is automatic.
The proposals exemplify two virtues: (a) they allow that control and automaticity are defined in opposition to each other (automaticity is the absence of control) and (b) they allow us to attribute both to the same process.
I think once we have an understanding of these ideas, we can actually make some headway on a variety of issues including agency, schizophrenia, and attention. I’ll discuss each of those in later posts. You might have your own phenomena that you think the notions should apply to so I would be pleased to hear about whether the basic ideas might apply to your domain.
Undoubtedly, philosophy being what it is, I’m sure there are refinements. It would be enough for me, however, that we consider automaticity and control as a set of concepts that are worthy of philosophical analysis.
A couple of papers: For some philosophical applications of these ideas, I am quite taken with Galen Strawson’s discussion of mental action (even if I disagree with him!). My response deploying the notions noted above is published in this volume and a penultimate version can be downloaded here.
Update: I’ve benefited from all the discussion, but I want to highlight one specific thread about control raised by Joshua Shepherd, Ellen Fridland and Wayne Christensen. I hope this will summarize one of the many interesting points readers have raised. You can read through the comments if you are interested, but to roughly summarize:
What has become apparent is that there are many things that we might call control. Josh brings up the notion of skilled behavior as an exemplification of a high level of control, and we can take the elite pianist as an example. Ellen noted different notions of control (Josh as well), and Wayne Christensen in one of his posts emphasizes the dynamic connections between these. There’s lots here, but I think it raises at least one challenge which I put as follows:
Take the elite pianist. Note that there are different forms of control that are being implemented, different things that are aptly called control, and perhaps with each, some relevant correlated sense of automaticity. Provide adequate analyses of these that is sensitive both to conceptual conditions and to known empirical phenomena. The goal here is to provide an adequate theoretical characterization that is then generalizable to other forms of skilled and unskilled behavior, that helps us make sense of the acquisition and loss of skills, of performance etc. Further, see if it can be generalized to philosophical questions about volition and agency.