Automaticity (Automation of Schemata)

Curtis was kind enough to except some of my thoughts on automaticity over at Dreaming 5GW. The section he highlighted was from OODA Alpha, which is an early draft of an academic paper I am writing on John Boyd’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) loop, applied to educational psychology. Since then, much of the paper has been rewritten. Below are the paragraphs from the current draft that reference automaticity. While the the rest of this post is assembled from different sections of my OODA paper, they serve to put my current thoughts on automaticity, with respect to the latest research. So without further ado, some words on automaticity, or the automation of mental structures:

Within the OODA model, two aspects of decision are most apparent. First, it is slower. While orientation can directly guide action, decision making represents an additional step to this process. However, just as harmful is the dampening of the power of orientation and its related automaticity. Decision can be the distracting result of environmental conditions that make exploiting one’s prior knowledge impossible. A fuller discussion on this phenomenon of disorientation is included below.

One of the sub-processes of orientation is analysis / synthesis, so it is no surprise that System 1 and System 2 activities together lead to a change of orientation. An example of this dual-system approach to learning can be seen in Leahy & Sweller’s investigation into cognitive load theory (Leahy & Sweller, 2005). After defining learning as the creation and automation of the appropriate schemata, the authors conduct two experiments into this reorientation. Their finding is that in processing complex information, directing experienced learners to imagine a correct answer produces better learning than directing them to study the appropriate material. That is, deciding to rely on orientation produces a good reorientation.

The ultimate result of reorientation is automated, effortless, orientation-level control over tasks. This result, and how to get it, is aptly described by Topping, Samuels, & Paul (2007). In experiments focused on improving reading comprehension, both the quantity and quality of practice is shown to matter. Again the interaction between orientation and decision in reorientation is revealed. With each new quality practice, the mental schemata related to a task are reinforced, requiring less decision to execute them. At the beginning of learning, large-scale decisive control over action is required. At the end, decision does not impact the result as actions are implicitly guided and controlled from orientation.

Cognitive overload, leading to disorientation, can be useful in disrupting automaticity. The positive benefits of automaticity are described above as they are the product of orientation, but automaticity also degrades performance in some areas. One negative aspect is that experts have a reduced ability to change automated behavior, precisely because the behavior is automated and not under conscious control (Wheatley & Wegner, 2001). More subtly, the expertise reversal effect may cause experts to perform more poorly than notices in some instructional situations. Specifically, expertise may act as a form of redundancy, forcing a learner to handle both a schema for already learned information as well as another scheme for nearly identical information being processed (Kalyuga, 2007).

Automaticity is often focused on academic knowledge. However, the same process of decisive analysis and synthesis leading to a new orientation occur in social information processing, as well. Gable and Van Acker (2004) describe this perspective at length in their look at the origin and treatment of socially poor behavior. A broader look at the benefits of disorienting social behavior is below, in the section on peer interaction.

The central finding of both the practical and arbitrary programs of experimentation is that orientation level processes are critical components for learning. Effortful decision may be useful in certain classroom tasks, especially at it relates to building automaticity, but learning fundamentally involves building schemata in orientation. To the extent that manipulation on the learner’s orientation achieve educational outcomes better than conscious-level decision making, orientation and not decision is the proper focus of instruction.

As described in the section on disorientation, social learning is similar to academic learning in that it involves the creation and automation of schemata. Access and use of these mental structures becomes increasingly fast and effortless over time, becoming difficult to change. In the context of cheating, harmful cooperative patterns of behavior are learned by students and, the more often executed, the easier to repeat.


Gable, R.A. & Van Acker, R. (2004). Sometimes, practice makes imperfect: Overcoming the aromaticity of challenging behavior by linking intervention to thoughts, feelings, and actions. Education and Treatment of Children, 27(4), 476-489.

Kalyuga, S. (2007). Expertise reversal effect and its implications for learner-tailored instructions. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 509-539.

Leahy, W. & Sweller, J. (2005). Interactions among the imagination, expertise reversal, and interactivity effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 11(4), 266-276.

Topping, K.J., Samuels, J., & Paul, T. (2007). Does practice make perfect? Independent reading quantity, quality, and student achievement. Learning and Instruction, 17(3), 253-264.

Wheatley, T., & Wegner, D. M. (2001). Automaticity of action, Psychology of. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences, (pp. 991-993). Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science Limited.

All right, who’s first: Africa or the Islamic world?

Tom’s recent post about enaging China on building Africa is a must read. I already commented over at this blog.

The Gap is essentially composed of the African and Islamic states in the world. However, the challenges we face in those theaters are remarkable different. In Africa, we’re essentially building from weak foundations across the board. A difficult job, but a combination of Chinese money and American will can go a long way. In the Islamic world, however, we face intelligent, organized, and modern foes with not just allies, but actual compatriots among the Left.

To me, this implies that we should focus on constructive engagement with Africa , and destructive disengagement with the Islamic world. That is, the flow of labor and capital should increase between the world economy and sub-Saharan Africa, while American and her allies should focus on destabilizing the system of the Islamic belt and otherwise walling ourselves off. This may be “civilizational apartheid,” but it should not serve to increase the positions of either the current regimes or the worst of their opponents.