Automaticity

Here’s one from the Learn Something New Every Day file…

One of my New Year’s resolutions that quickly fell by the wayside was to learn and use a new word every day.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m lazy, or no one got me a word-a-day calendar for Christmas, or some combination of the two, but by the end of the first week of January, this particular resolution was toast.

Multiple scientific studies have pinpointed the length of time it takes to make something a habit, and the findings usually land somewhere in the three-week range – i.e. it takes about 21 days of repetition to make something a habit. My assumption is that this applies only to beneficial habits – I seem to have no difficulties whatsoever in adopting bad habits after just one or two repetitions.

Once you hit that 21-day mark, it becomes smooth sailing, and you’ve now adopted a (hopefully beneficial) habit. Your body (or mind, if it’s a mental habit) kicks into autopilot, and you begin to feel pangs of guilt immediately when you skip the activity.

Go to the gym a couple of times a week, for instance – or whenever you feel like it – and it becomes easy to rationalize not going. I’m busy, I’m tired, I’m not feeling that well – all of these become valid reasons to avoid said activity.

What you’re actually trying to do is train your body and/or mind to develop and engage in another automatic behavior, and we have a name for this: Automaticity. This is the state of committing a physical or mental activity to muscle memory.

One of the most commonly cited examples involves driving. If you commute to work, try to recall the exact route you took – pretty easy right? If you take the same route to work every day, or cycle through two or three different routes that are essentially similar, then it’s easy to recall how you got to work today.

Now, try to recall and describe in detail three different vehicles you encountered on your way to work today. A bit more difficult, correct? Unless you encountered something out of the ordinary – an accident or collision, a truck with a vibrant, unique wrap, or something else along those lines, chances are you can’t recall the details about any of the vehicles that were making the same journey as you, despite the fact that you most likely encountered dozens of vehicles on your trip this morning.

This is because you were driving on autopilot. Your body was engaged in an activity that it had already performed hundreds or thousands of times before – driving a car – freeing up your mind to address the issues that are really important to you. Are you going to be on time with all this traffic? Where are you going to eat for lunch? Will you be able to sneak out before 5pm today to try and beat the traffic home?

Automaticity is a useful tool, and it allows us to function in a more sophisticated social environment. Think about the last time you embarked on a long-distance road trip. Being aware of the dozens or hundreds of miles that were passing by, as they were passing by, would be agonizing, to say the least. Listening to music, playing word games with your fellow passengers, and planning your itinerary when you reach your destination are all activities your mind is able to engage in as your body engages in the rote function of piloting your vehicle down the highway.

There are other fascinating real-world applications to this as well. One study that I came across, by the social psychiatrist Robert Cialdini, discussed the level of compliance in individuals when presented with differing scenarios. In one of his studies, he presented his subjects with three different requests:

“I have five pages to copy, may I user your copier? I’m in a rush.”
“I have five pages to copy, may I use your copier?”
“I have five pages to copy, may I use your copier? I need to make copies.”

In the first instance, a valid need is being expressed – I’m in a hurry, can I use your copier? – and a full 94% of respondents replied in the affirmative. That is to say, they allowed the person to make their copies.

In the second instance, that percentage dropped to 60% – in other words, a lack of a valid reason increased the resistance within the group of respondents to allowing the person to complete their task.

Interestingly, in the third instance, compliance jumped back up to 93%, despite that fact that, although a reason was given, it was not a valid reason. The only difference between the second and third requests is the addition of the additional (meaningless) phrase. However, most respondents made no value judgments of what was said – they heard what they thought was a valid reason, and so complied with the request.

Further, when the request was made of something a little more substantial – in Cialdini’s study, for instance, the request was subsequently increased from five to twenty pages – disruption can occur, jerking the subject back to attention to focus on the situation at hand.

In the case of our copiers above, the percentages dropped to 40%, 25% and 25%, indicating that the subjects were now paying closer attention to the reasoning when asked to make substantially more copies – “because I need to make copies” was no longer considered a valid reason, as evidenced by the matching percentages for both options two and three.

Apply this to your drive to work as well. Did that guy in the maroon BWM with the IMRICH vanity plates just cut you off? Disruption has pulled you away from your internal reverie and drawn your focus back to the task of driving, and presented you with a series of choices. Do you honk and flip him off? Hit the gas and try to cut him off? Let it go? Whatever your choice, you are now fully focused on the situation unfolding before you.

Automaticity is a valuable, if unintentional, tool for dealing with the humdrum, repetitive tasks each of us needs to carry out without wasting valuable mental energies that can best be utilized elsewhere. Embrace this condition and learn to use it whenever you can – it will pay huge dividends in the end.

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