In Milgram’s obedience study, the Teachers seemed to know little or nothing about the actual causes of their behavior: they tended to blame the Experimenter and the Learner without realizing that the social situation and their acceptance of a subordinate role in that situation were important determinants of their behavior. As if to underscore this last point, Milgram (1974) warned that the Teachers’ explanations of their own actions were of questionable accuracy:
While we must take seriously everything the subject says, we need not necessarily think that he fully understands the causes of his own behavior. A line must be drawn between listening carefully to what the subject says and mistaking it for the full story. The subject is controlled by many forces in the situation beyond his awareness, implicit structures that regulate his behavior without signaling this fact to him. And we have one enormous advantage over the subject: In each condition, we have slightly varied the nature of the circumstances which the subject confronts and thus know the importance of each of the factors. The participant, and he alone, has experienced the predicament, but he cannot place it in the perspective that comes only from an overview. (pp. 44-45; emphasis added)
The last sentence contradicts common sense for many people. Most of us assume that, if we want to know why someone did something, we need only ask that person. But research in social psychology shows time and again that this everyday assumption often is wrong.
Social psychologists have demonstrated that our everyday assumptions and inferences about the causes of people’s actions often are inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Milgram (1974) claimed that “it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act” (p. 205). Milgram here is claiming that our actions are caused primarily by external factors of which we generally are unaware, and that we are mistaken if we assume that our actions are caused primarily by internal factors such as conscious motives or intentions. His claim probably is too extreme: personal dispositions (internal factors) and situations (external factors) interact in producing our cognitions, emotions, and behavior. Nevertheless, Milgram was correct that we often are unaware of the true causes of our actions. Just as the mental processes that organize and structure the sentences that we speak generally operate at the unconscious level, the mental processing of information in the immediate social situation generally occurs nonconsciously. The term nonconscious is used by cognitive psychologists to refer to what we have been calling the preconscious and unconscious levels of awareness.
Each of us processes information about the world at each moment during our lives, even when we are deeply asleep. (Sleepwalking, for example, occurs during deep sleep and requires that sleepwalkers process information about the world around them.) Most information is processed very quickly, with little or no attention or mental effort. For instance, it usually requires little effort on our part to rapidly process the sensory information needed for the performance of a habit. The habitual behaviors involved in driving a car are a good example of this. People who have been driving for several years usually pay little or attention to their driving-related actions: the information needed to correctly perform these actions is processed unconsciously or preconsciously. On the other hand, people usually pay close attention, and thereby exert a great deal of mental effort, to the processing of novel (unfamiliar) information. Right now, for example, you probably are trying to pay close attention to these words so that you can understand the lesson. The problem, as you learned when you studied the material on short-term and working memory (see Section 5-8 and Section 5-9), is that we are able to pay attention to only a small amount of sensory information at any one time. This means that most of the sensory information currently impinging on us is being processed either preconsciously or unconsciously.
In order to demonstrate this to yourself, see if you can read the words in this paragraph while trying to understand what is being said in a nearby conversation (if there are no people conversing nearby, then turn on the television and try to pay attention to what people are saying there while you are reading this). You’ll probably find that you have no trouble reading while trying to attend to the conversation around you. This is because, just as with driving a car, reading has become habitual for most people by the time they enter college. The visual information contained in written words is processed unconsciously and translated into the appropriate sounds. Nevertheless, you cannot understand the meaning of a written sentence if at the same time, you are trying to understand what is being said in a nearby conversation. Understanding the meaning of a sentence requires effortful attention and conscious processing of information in working memory.
When processing sensory information without attending to it, we use a set of mental processes referred to as automatic processes (Bargh, 1997; Wilson, 2002) — mental processes that:
- occur at the nonconscious level.
- are unintentional
- are performed rapidly.
- require little or no mental effort.
Because automatic processes are performed without our consciously intending to use them, we are unable to control them directly. Automatic processes are used to process sensory (and other) information whenever a situation (a) elicits reflexive behaviors (evolutionary adaptations such as rapidly pulling one’s hand away from a hot object); and (b) evokes habitual behaviors (well-learned behaviors such as driving your car down a freeway). Most of the information we process in this manner is either very familiar to us or it is trivial and, therefore, never enters the conscious level.
When using attention to process sensory information, we use a set of mental processes referred to as controlled processes — mental processes that:
- occur at the conscious level;
- are intentional (and, therefore, controllable);
- are performed slowly ;
- require a great deal of mental effort.
Controlled processes are those mental processes that occur within working memory. Because controlled processes are performed with intension (that is, we consciously intend to use them), we can control them directly. Controlled processes are used to process sensory (and other) information whenever a situation (a) is a novel one (hence, no relevant reflexive or habitual behaviors exist); (b) contains a component that, for whatever reason, “grabs” our attention (such as a bright flash of light). We also sometimes are able to deliberately focus our attention on something we typically wouldn’t pay attention to through an act of what many people would call “free will.” For example, we can “force” ourselves to pay attention to the components of a habitual action (such as the movements involved in tying our shoes).
Although most of you typically use automatic processes when driving a car, this was not the case when you initially learned to drive. At first, controlled processes were needed to stay within lane markings, to avoid other cars, and to do all the other things required to drive safely. This is because driving, at that time, was an unfamiliar (novel) situation and you had not yet developed habitual patterns of thinking and behaving while driving. After much practice, however, the situational demands became very familiar and the most adaptive responses had been well learned. In general, controlled processes are required to learn how to respond to novel situations. Once the appropriate responses have developed into mental and behavioral habits, however, automatic processes are used to perceive and interpret situational stimuli that release the habitual responses nonconsciously.
[Stroop Test example to be used in class (described in Stroop, 1935): http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/java/ready.html ]
Why Do We Have Two Types of Mental Processing?
If controlled processes are so important for learning to respond adaptively to unfamiliar situations, why don’t we try to use them in all situations? Why don’t we rid ourselves of automatic processes, especially given the fact that any situation, regardless of how similar it is to previous situations, always contains unfamiliar aspects? Furthermore, a major goal of education is to help students develop their ability to think critically, even with respect to situations and topics for which they already have firmly established and adaptive responses — in other words, to make greater use of controlled processes. It seems obvious that the more we use our automatic processes, the less we are able to think critically.
Let’s try to answer the question of why there are two types of mental processing by performing a simple experiment. Count backwards from 25 by subtracting 1 each time. This should be a very simple task. Why? Because you first learned to count many years ago, and you have had much practice counting forwards and backwards, which has caused this skill to develop into a habit requiring only automatic processes. Once you say “25,” you’re off and running to the next number in the sequence, the one after that, and so on. In fact, you should be able to count backwards from 25 while doing other things (such as driving a car or making dinner) because you don’t need to pay attention to your counting.
Now, count backwards from 25 by subtracting 1.5 each time (that is, 25, 23.5, 22, 20.5, etc.). This task probably is unfamiliar and, therefore, requires you to pay close attention: your working memory must form a mental representation of each new number after each subtraction, and then consciously subtract 1.5 from that number, giving a result that you must store as a mental representation until you have subtracted 1.5 from it, and so on. This task requires the use of controlled processes. When using controlled processes to perform one task, you are unable simultaneously to perform another task that requires attention. For example, it would be very difficult to count backwards from 25 by subtracting 1.5 each time while trying to drive to a location in an unfamilar part of town through heavy freeway traffic. On the other hand, you probably could perform this backward-counting task while driving your normal route home in light traffic because the task of driving would require mostly automatic processes.
Automatic processes produce adaptive responses to familiar situations quickly, efficiently, and nonconsciously, whereas controlled processes produce adaptive responses slowly, in a plodding manner that demands a great deal of attention and mental effort. When we use automatic processes to perform one or more habitual/reflexive behaviors, our working memory is free to attend to figuring out how to respond to a complex or novel task. In general, we prefer to use automatic processes because they require little or no mental effort (we tend to be cognitive misers 1. We use controlled processes only when we must and are motivated to do so.
The conscious part of working memory consists of a group of “trouble-shooting” mental processes. That is, when a novel situation occurs and it involves a problem that we are motivated to solve correctly, the controlled processes of working memory take over. In all other situations, we rely upon automatic processes to get the job done. For example, you use automatic processes to drive unless something unexpected happens, at which point controlled processes take over. These allow you to analyze the unfamiliar situation in more depth in order to figure out how best to respond. The same is true for social situations. Much of the information coming in from social situations is processed automatically. Only a small amount of this information is attended to and analyzed with controlled processes. Because we rely so heavily on automatic processes, many of our responses to social situations occur “mindlessly.”
Mindlessness in Social Situations
The situational demands in Milgram’s Standard Condition caused participants to automatically process the information provided by the Experimenter, the Learner, the shock generator, etc. Because most of us are trained from early childhood to obey legitimate authority figures without question (such as parents, teachers, police officers, principals, and so on), the information received by the Teachers was processed and responded to automatically. Obedient responses make up a well-learned habit that is activated by commands from someone we have accepted as an authority figure. In other words, we respond “mindlessly” to what the authority tells us to do.
Many of us also are taught from early childhood that it is important to help others whenever we can, and to comply with their reasonable requests for help. Thus, throughout our lives, we often comply mindlessly to others’ requests for assistance, unless we perceive their requests to be unreasonable. Let’s say, for example, that you are copying pages from an assigned reading when someone walks up behind you and says: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine?” Would you step aside and let the person use the machine first? It probably depends on several factors, such as how much of a rush you are in. Langer, Blank, and Chanowitz (1978) performed an experimental study in which they observed how often library patrons would comply with this request, as well as several variants. When the request was made of people using a copy machine in a university library, about 60% stepped aside to let the other person (the confederate) use the copier first.
In a second condition, the confederate added several words to the original request: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine because I have to make copies?” It should be obvious that the bolded words added no new information: the first sentence of the request made it clear that the person wanted to make copies. The participants receiving this request were referred to as the “redundant-request” group because the added words were redundant (able to be omitted without loss of meaning). Do you think that the addition of, “because I have to make copies,” would make it more likely, less likely, or equally likely that participants would step aside and let the confederate use the machine? The researchers found that the redundant request increased by 33% the percentage of participants who stepped aside: 93% allowed the confederate to use the copy machine first!
In a third condition, the confederate added nonredundant words to the original request: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine because I am in a rush?” The researchers found that 94% of the participants in the “nonredundant-request” group complied with the request, which is equivalent to the percentage complying with the redundant request. Thus, it seems that, if we want to maximize the number of people who comply with a request, all we need to do is add the word because followed by words that complete the sentence. In other words, the results of the experiment suggest that we automatically process the word because uttered by someone making a request, and comply without thinking. The results of this study illustrate well what is meant by mindlessness: the tendency to automatically process social information and to respond without conscious deliberation. We tend to respond mindlessly only when we are not given a good reason to think more carefully about the information. The results are presented in Table 1.
|Number of PagesTo Copy||Information Provided|
Table 1. Results of the compliance study by Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz (1978) when confederates said that they wanted to copy 5 pages
On the other hand, the research participants described by Langer, Blank, and Chanowitz (1978) responded “mindfully” (that is, they used controlled processes) when the request became less reasonable; instead of five pages, the confederate asked to copy 20 pages. The same three groups were observed and the results are presented in Table 2.
|Number of PagesTo Copy||Information Provided|
Table 2. Results of the compliance study by Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz (1978) when confederates said that they wanted to copy 20 pages
As you can see, compared to the condition in which the confederate asked to copy five pages, fewer participants stepped aside when the confederate made the simple request: “Excuse me, I have 20 pages. May I use the copy machine?” (60% versus 24% compliance, respectively). Furthermore, when the request included 20 copies, the word because no longer had the mindless effect on compliance among those in the redundant-request group: only 24% stepped aside when the words “because I have to make copies” were added, which was equivalent to the percentage stepping aside in the simple-request group. This means that these participants used controlled processes to think about the added words and realized that they provided no new information. Finally, the nonredundant request increased compliance to 42%. But probably because the request now was judged by the participants to be less reasonable, the amount of compliance was less than half of that in the 5-copy condition.
The results of this study show clearly that, when a social situation is familiar to us, the following occurs:
- When we judge the situation to be relatively unimportant, we tend to use automatic processes, thereby responding mindlessly to information.
- When we judge the situation to be relatively important, we tend to become motivated to use controlled processes, thereby responding mindfully to information.
This may help you to understand why you sometimes will sign a petition handed to you without even reading it or listening to the rationale provided by the person making the request. But if that person then whips out five more petitions and begins to provide rationales for them, you probably will switch to a more mindful attitude.
1 We are cognitive misers in the sense that we tend to process information by using the least amount of attention and mental effort required. This concept assumes that humans are limited in their capacity to process information and, therefore, make use of automatic processes (mental shortcuts, formally referred to as cognitive heuristics) that simplify complex problems. In other words, all other things being equal, we are motivated to use relatively effortless and simple mental shortcuts that provide rapid but often inaccurate solutions rather than effortful and complex mental processing that provides delayed but often more accurate solutions.
Study Questions for Section 6-10
- According to social psychologists such as Stanley Milgram, why do people often not know the causes of their own behavior?
- At what level of awareness do we tend to process most information in our immediate social situations?
- Is the sensory information required for the performance of a habit processed consciously? Why or why not?
- How would you define automatic processes in your own words?
- Are we able to consciously control our automatic processes? Why or why not?
- When do we tend to use automatic processes?
- What is an example of a situation, not mentioned in the reading, in which you would use automatic processes?
- Is working memory related to automatic processes? If so, how are the two related?
- How would you define controlled processes in your own words?
- When do we tend to use controlled processes?
- What is an example of a situation, not mentioned in the reading, in which you would use controlled processes?
- How would you use the concepts of automatic and controlled processes to explain the behaviors of the Teachers in Milgram’s obedience research?
- Is working memory related to controlled processes? If so, how are the two related?
- Why do we have two types of mental processing of sensory (and other) information?
- How would you define “mindlessness” in your own words?
- Based on your understanding of “mindlessness,” how would you define “mindfulness” in your own words?
- How did the study by Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz (1978) illustrate the concept of “mindlessness”?
- How did the study by Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz (1978) illustrate the concept of “mindfulness”?
- In what type of social situation are we most likely to act mindlessly?
- In what type of social situation are we most likely to act mindfully?
Bargh, J. A. (1997). The automaticity of everyday life. In R. S. J. Wyer (Ed.), Advances in social cognition, Vol. 10 (pp. 1-61). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Langer, E. J., Blank, A., Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of “placebic” information in interpersonal interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 635-642. doi: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.525
Retrieved November 25, 2011, from http://mbialek.cba.pl/pliki/langer.pdf
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row Publishing.
Stroop, J. R. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18, 643–662. doi: 10.1037/h0054651 Retrieved November 25, 2011, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Stroop/
Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.