Controlled processing is the term used for cognitive activities that are intentionally activated and require conscious awareness. To perform novel or difficult tasks involves controlled processing.
For example, individuals are using controlled processing when engaged in problem-solving.First, several possible solutions must be generated. Then, a thorough analysis of factors that may facilitate or hinder the success of that solution is initiated.
This might involve accessing previous experiences from memory or recalling information read weeks or months prior.
Additionally, the pros and cons of each solution must be considered, which requires thinking about future circumstances and trying to anticipate potential obstacles.
Each one of these elements of problem-solving is a function of controlled mental activity that requires a great deal of concentration and effort.
In fact, controlled processing is sometimes referred to as effortful processing.
Controlled Processing vs. Automatic Processing
There are four fundamental differences between controlled and automatic processing.
1. Active vs Passive
Controlled processing is an active cognitive process whereas automatic processing is passive.
This means that there is at least a minimal amount of mental effort involved in controlled processes. In some cases, there may be substantial mental effort required.
However, automatic processes involve almost zero mental effort. In fact, there are several forms of automatic processing that do not require any mental effort whatsoever.
2. Cognitive Capacity
The second difference has to do with what is referred to as cognitive capacity.
At any given time, while engaged in a mental activity, each person is utilizing a portion of their cognitive capacity.
Some tasks are so difficult that they require 100% of an individual’s cognitive capacity to perform.
Controlled processes can absorb maximum cognitive capacity. Automatic processing absorbs zero, or near zero cognitive capacity.
For example, think of a person driving to an unfamiliar destination in a neighborhood. As they are driving along slowly and trying to read the street signs, they will often turn down the volume on the radio or ask their passengers to be quiet.
This is because the task uses a lot of cognitive capacity and the person cannot complete the task if being distracted.
3. Conscious Control of Attention
The third difference has to do with the conscious control of attention.
Controlled processing involves the individual consciously directing their attention to various aspects of the situation.
Automatic processing does not require conscious control of attention. Many tasks can be performed unconsciously, with absolutely zero conscious control.
Finally, automatic processes are fast. This is because they absorb very little cognitive capacity.
However, controlled processes are slower.
The more difficult or novel the task, the slower the controlled processing becomes in order to perform the task.
Relationship Between Controlled and Automatic Processing
Although usually discussed as being a dichotomy, controlled and automatic processing exists on a continuum (Hartlage et al., 1993).
A task which began requiring controlled processing may become automatic with repetition.
That is, a task which began as needing a great deal of attentional control and absorbing a lot of cognitive capacity, can eventually become automatic.
For example, when a child is first learning to read a simple word such as “cat,” they have to think about how to pronounce each letter. This first step in reading is performed sequentially, and slowly.
But with practice, the child will no longer have to access their long-term memory every time to recall how to pronounce each one of those letters.
It happens automatically. They see the word and instantly pronounce it correctly.
The task no longer requires a lot of conscious effort and it absorbs very little cognitive capacity. What was once a controlled process has become automatic.
Although controlled processing requires cognitive capacity and attentional resources,
“the costs of this capacity limitation are balanced by the benefits deriving from the ease with which such processes may be set up, altered, and applied in novel situations for which automatic sequences have never been learned” (Schneider & Shiffrin, 1977, p. 3).
Schneider (1985, 2016) proposed that moving from controlled to automatic processing when a person conducts a search through occurs in four phases:
- Phase 1: Phase 1 is purely a function of controlled processing.
- Phase 2: As repetition increases, Phase 2 involves both controlled and automatic processing co-occurring.
- Phase 3: Phase 3 still involves controlled processing, but it is done so in order to guide automatic processing.
- Phase 4: Eventually, the entire task becomes a function of automatic processing. In this last phase, other tasks that require attentional demands and capacity can be activated.
Origins of Controlled Processing
Schneider and Chein (2003) point out that the notion of two types of processing, automatic and controlled, was first suggested by James in 1890 in his famous book, The Principles of Psychology.
Several decades later, Kahneman (1973) proposed a capacity model of attention which suggested that there is limited energy available to devote to mental activities.
Kahneman identified three elements:
“…the completion of a mental activity requires… “effort,” “capacity,” or “attention.”” (p. 9).
More specifically related to the notion of dual types of cognitive processing, Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) identified the specific characteristics of controlled processing in memory tasks.
From that early publication, Shiffrin and his students continued this line of research for the next 30 years (Schneider & Chein, 2003).
Controlled Processing Examples
- Learning How to Ride a Bike: In the beginning stages of learning how to ride a bike, the novice needs to exert maximum concentration on all aspects of riding. They have to think about steering, pedaling, keeping their balance, and monitoring the environment for obstacles.
- Playing Chess: Every move in chess involves analyzing dozens of play sequences far into the future. To make matters even more challenging, the advantages and risks of each move must also be carefully considered.
- Participating in a Classroom Debate: Having a debate with a classmate requires a lot of cognitive processing. The points being made by the other participant have to be quickly analyzed for weaknesses, while at the same time, one must be able to generate a potent counterargument.
- Writing a Scientific Paper: When writing a scientific paper, it is usually necessary to refer back to previous studies, identify key points made, and then incorporate those ideas into what is being currently written. Those ideas might have to also be critiqued, used for making additional points, or for creating context for the current discussion.
- Preparing a Speech: Preparing for the delivery of an important speech can require a lot of time spent researching the topic, identifying key points and supporting facts. It is best to memorize the speech so one is not constantly looking down at a sheet of paper and reading from a script. All of that takes considerable control over one’s cognitive processing.
- Learning How to Use New Software: The first few weeks trying to learn how to use new software can be very frustrating because it requires so much cognitive effort. Searching for the right icon on the menu that will activate the function you need takes time and usually results in a few mistakes before finding the right one. However, after a few weeks, its easy to fly through the steps needed, almost without even thinking.
- Playing the Piano: When first learning how to play the piano, the novice has to concentrate fully on each and every keystroke. The fingers move slowly and it requires a lot of concentration. With time and practice, eventually a song can be performed so easily that it can be played automatically.
- Designing a Research Study: When scientists design a research study, they have to consider a lot of issues. How much time will the study take? What resources will they need? What kind of training will the research assistants need? Once the data are collected, which specific statistical analyses are most appropriate? Answering all of those questions will absorb a lot of cognitive capacity and require sustained conscious control of attention.
- Creating a Concept Map: Creating a concept map involves searching through long-term memory to find definitions and facts, and then examining how that information is related to other concepts. Those comparisons and analyses all involve controlled processing.
- Implementing an Action Plan: School administrators have just discovered that one of their students has been diagnosed with a contagious disease. They must immediately implement an action plan that takes into account a large number of factors. Some aspects of the plan will need to be modified and various roles and tasks will need to be delegated quickly and efficiently.
Applications of Controlled Processing
1. Effortful Processing Impairments in Depression
Cohen et al. (2001) compared depressed with non-depressed individuals’ performance on various types of tasks.
“Results indicate that patients with major affective disorders show significant attentional impairments on most measures of effortful attention, and the magnitude of these impairments increases as the effortful demands of the task increase” (p. 385).
Other research has found that depressed patients have difficulty planning, initiating tasks, and problem-solving (Martin et al, 1981; Elderkin-Thompson et al., 2006).
Several other studies suggest that individuals with major affective disorders have impaired attentional control and executive functioning (Weingartner, 1981; Cohen, 2013).
These impairments lead to reduced emotional regulation, can lead to impulsive behavior, and disrupt interpersonal relations.
McClintock et al. (2010) suggest that difficulties in executive functions are related to frontal cortical impairments in the cerebral cortex (Kaiser et al., 2003).
2. In Advertising
Controlled and automatic processing of advertisements influence the effectiveness of any given commercial.
For example, some types of commercials contain a lot of factual information regarding a product or service. However, other commercials contain celebrity endorsements or attractive models.
According to the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) of persuasion, each type of commercial will be processed through either a central or peripheral route (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).
When the viewer knows a lot about the product, issue, or the message is highly self-relevant, then the ELM proposes that the viewer will engage in “careful and thoughtful consideration of the true merits of the information presented” (p. 125).
This is the central route and involves controlled processing of the information presented in the ad.
In contrast, for less personally relevant products or issues in which the viewer knows less, they are more persuaded by the attractiveness or status of the source.
This is the peripheral route, which involves a more automatic process that relies on affective components of the ad.
Since its original proposal in the mid-1980s, the model has been researched extensively and proven to be a highly valuable framework for understanding consumer behavior, public service announcements, prejudice, and attitudes on political issues (Petty & Briñol, 2011).
3. In Combatting Fake News
The spread of misinformation online, commonly referred to as fake news, has raised concern among behavioral scientists and political commentators (Allen et al., 2020).
Fake news can lead to increased political polarization, decreased trust in public institutions, and undermines democracy (Persily, 2017; Tucker et al., 2018).
Eveland’s (2001) cognitive mediation model proposes that cognitive processing of news must occur in order for it to affect an individual’s political views or behavior.
Research by Shahin et al. (2021) support this contention. Their research found that elaborating on news content (i.e., controlled processing), increases online political involvement.
de Zúñiga et al. (2023) point out that increased elaboration may result in the rejection of fake news. When an individual encounters fake news they may engage in an analysis of the message content (i.e., controlled processing). This enhanced analysis will help them identify the misleading elements of the message.
Their survey results found that “Individuals reporting greater elaboration in response to news were more disposed toward corrective actions, suggesting that news elaboration may serve as a buffer against fake news spread” (p. 3444).
These studies, combined with other research (Pennycook & Rand, 2019; 2020), demonstrate that the failure to reject fake news may be the result of not engaging in effortful (i.e., controlled) processing of message content.
Controlled processing is the term used to describe a mental activity which requires cognitive effort, conscious control of attention, and absorbs cognitive capacity.
When first encountering a difficult task, completing that task is a function of controlled processing. Fortunately, with repetition, most controlled processes can become automatic.
This means that the once difficult tack can be performed with very little cognitive effort, capacity, or attentional focus.
Research has demonstrated that controlled processing can be a challenge for depressed individuals, which may lead to impaired planning and problem-solving.
Because controlled processing is necessary for emotional regulation, depressed individuals may also have difficulty with impulse control or maintaining healthy social relations.
Controlled processing also plays a role in the persuasiveness of message appeals in commercials, political ads, and fake news.
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