Controlled versus Automatic Processing

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Levels of Perceptual Processing
Image by silviarita from Pixabay

Based on their studies examining the processes of attention, cognitive psychologists Schneider and Shiffrin (1977) theorized two distinct levels of perceptual processing in human beings – automatic and controlled. Automatic processing refers to a state of consciousness that requires only a minimal level of attention, effort and working memory capacity. It is a form of parallel processing because it allows for the cognitive processing of more than one item of input simultaneously and typically represents the level of processing normally engaged in when performing a familiar, routine, or repetitive task.

In contrast, controlled processing occurs with novel or difficult cognitive tasks, and requires a greater degree of focused attention and working memory capacity. It represents a form of serial processing, whereby only one task is attended to at a time (Matlin, 2002; Ormrod, 2004). The two processes are closely related in that, as individuals become more familiar with a particular task, through repetition and/or practice, controlled processing gradually gives way to increased automatic processing of at least some subcomponents of the activity, thus requiring increasingly less mental effort to maintain the activity (Schneider and Shiffrin, 1977).

Virtually all learned tasks initially require the level of concentration of controlled processing. A toddler learning to walk must focus a great deal of attention upon each step of the experience, until such time as the coordination of the cognitive and motor events becomes routine and instinctive. Then, once a certain level of that task is achieved to the point of automatic processing, more complex tasks, such as the coordinated movements necessary for running or playing a sport, can be attempted with attention focused upon the fine tuning of the movement.

Such automaticity is a necessary aspect of high-level functioning. Complex tasks can only be successfully mastered when a portion of the processing is developed to the level of automatic processing, freeing up more working memory to focus on other, more unfamiliar aspects of the tasks. The process of learning to read is another example that illustrates the progression from the labor-intensive beginnings requiring controlled processing to the stage where the activity is virtually unconscious and automatic (i.e., after learning to read, one cannot pass a billboard without reading, or automatically processing, the words).

Learning and practicing a task to the level of automaticity allows for skill development to advance to a higher level and for multitasking to occur. It is this progressive process that forms the foundation for subsequent learning and essentially represents what has moved humankind forward from the mere execution of basic tasks of survival to the development of sophisticated systems of society.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay


Matlin, M. W. (2002). Cognition, 5e. New York, NY: Harcourt College Publishers.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning, 4ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Schneider, W. & Shriffrin, R. M. (1977). Controlled and automatic information processing: Detection, search and attention. Psychological Review, 84, 1-66.

This is original content from NewsBreak’s Creator Program. Join today to publish and share your own content.

Comments / 3

Published by

Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

More from Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Comments / 0