Controlled vs Automatic Processing: Definition & Difference

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  • 0:02 Different Kinds of Processing
  • 2:11 Differences
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Controlled and automatic processing are two ways in which we process information. Learn more about the two types of processing, how they differ from each other, and more.

Different Kinds of Processing

Every day, we are presented with thousands of pieces of information. Every place we go, every person we meet, and everything we do brings us into contact with new data that we must interpret, analyze, and potentially use. These functions are part of what we call processing. There are two ways in which we process information. They are called controlled processing and automatic processing.

Controlled processing requires us to pay attention and deliberately put in effort. Controlled processing is intentionally done while we are consciously aware of what we are doing. In other words, we actually have to think about what is going on and make decisions. We are in 'control' of these processes. For example, when we first learned how to ride a bike, we had to pay attention to what we were doing. We had to be consciously aware of where the brakes were, where the pedals are located, how to stop, how to steer the bike, etc. We purposefully paid attention to all of these things, and we put forth the effort to learn how to ride a bike. Some other examples of controlled processing include the first time a person drives a car, writing a letter to a friend, and answering interview questions.

Automatic processing does not require us to pay attention, nor do we have to deliberately put in effort to control automatic processes. Automatic processing occurs without us giving much thought to it. If we practice something long enough, it becomes automatic. For example, as an experienced bike rider, you may be able to do many bike-riding tasks (i.e. shifting the gears of the bike, braking, and steering) automatically without giving it much thought. You can steer, brake, react to cars on the road, and change speeds because all of the years of practice have made it possible for you to do these things automatically without being consciously aware of what you are doing. Some other examples of automatic processing include playing the piano, walking, and singing a song you are familiar with.

Now that we know what controlled and automatic processing are, let's look at some of the major differences between the two.


As previously mentioned, it takes time and practice to develop automatic processing. Think of how long it takes to become an experienced car driver or how long it takes people to become skilled in playing the piano. Controlled processing can be established much sooner and under a variety of circumstances. All you have to do is pay attention and be aware of what you are doing, and controlled processing will happen.

Once established, automatic processing is done quickly and is parallel, meaning that many automatic processes can be carried out at once. For example, an experienced bike rider can ride a bike and sing a song at the same time without an issue. This is because automatic processing requires few mental resources. On the other hand, controlled processing requires us to use many of our mental resources. Because of this, controlled processing is slower and is serial, which means items can only be processed one at a time. For example, imagine what would happen if while on a driving lesson, a person was handed a cell phone and asked to send a text. It would likely lead to a car crash, or worse.

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