Careful Analysis vs. Automatic Processing

Thinking very carefully about problems can be an extremely powerful way to answer questions or make predictions. But there are some problems for which our non-conscious processing systems produce superior results.

Our non-conscious systems primarily work using pattern recognition. Through a combination of genetic pre-programming and repeated exposure, your brain learns to label instances of things in the world as “dangerous” or “not dangerous”, “food” or “not food”, “person” or “not person”, “real smile” or “fake smile”. It learns to categorize and predict automatically.

When you see a chair you are immediately able to recognize it as a chair and associate it with your concept of chair, even if it is the largest chair you have ever seen, or the first one you’ve seen with a zebra stripe pattern. Your brain has effectively developed a way to rapidly recognize things as being “chairs” or “not chairs” based on whether they match a certain pattern. This pattern was learned automatically from exposure to many chairs in the past. You don’t have to consciously consider whether this particular object has the features necessary to make it a chair, your brain produces an answer before you are even aware of thinking about it.

To give another example, consider what happens when a chess Grandmasters looks at a chess board. In many cases, they are able to glance at a board positions and immediately (without conscious thought) identify them as being strong or weak, with good reliability. Of course, they might then choose to reason consciously about the positions in order to check or improve upon their gut responses.

Having considered these two ways of making predictions and decisions, the question then arises: when should we rely on thorough conscious analysis, and when should we use our automatic processing? To answer this, let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of these two approaches.


Careful Conscious Analysis


  • Handles problems where multiple logical deductive steps are necessary to find a solution (e.g. I know that all A’s are B’s, and also that if something is a C it cannot be a B, therefore this particular A is not a C.)
  • Allows the application of theories to problems, and in doing so lets you leverage the research and thinking of others (e.g. what does economic theory tell us will happen to soybean prices when the supply of soybeans dries up?)
  • Allows you to develop theories of your own which can then be applied in future situations. (e.g. I’ve noticed that when I attack him on his left side he parries and counter attacks. So this time I will initiate a fast attack to the left, and as he begins to parry, I will drop the point of my blade to get underneath his sword, and carry the momentum into an attack to the right instead)
  • Lets you compare the advantages and disadvantages of multiple possible methods or solutions. (e.g. The first theory predicts results will come out a certain way, but the second predicts a slightly different outcome. However, the first theory has a better track record on cases like this one.)
  • Produces reasoning that can be communicated to others. (e.g. I came to my conclusion by evaluating the randomized controlled trials and noting that…)


  • Unless you have honed your truth discernment skills, you may fall prey to logical fallacies, become misled by cognitive biases, or rely on theories that have not been empirically validated. Performing truly excellent and reliable conscious analysis takes work, skill, self correction, good habits of mind, knowledge about potential pitfalls, and practice. (e.g. Due to the compatibility of your astrological charts, I think that he would make an excellent husband.)
  • Thinking carefully is a slow process. (e.g. There is a deer in the road about thirty feet ahead of me and I’m going 60 miles per hour. If I hit the brake now will I have time to stop before I hit it? Will it be more or less dangerous to me if…)


Unconscious Automatic Processing


  • Operates fast (e.g. That ball he hit is going out-of-bounds so there is no need to run and try to catch it)
  • Can be used in lots of situations where feedback is readily available, even when you don’t have a theory about how to solve the problem consciously (e.g. Now when I look at a cubist work I immediately know if is by Picasso, Braque or someone else, even if I’ve never seen it before.)
  • Starts to get trained automatically without effort if you just do something enough times (e.g. Having listened to enough songs that I knew the titles of, I can now often guess what the title of a song is just from its lyrics)


  • Cannot effectively handle all types of problems. This method is especially bad for problems that require long deductive chains to solve, or where gathering various sorts of evidence together is necessary. (e.g. I know that the randomized controlled trials say otherwise, but my own experiences as a psychologist still tells me that psychodynamic therapy is more useful and cost-effective for treating depression than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)
  • May give you wrong answers when the problem changes compared to what you have been trained on (e.g. I know we’re playing squash now, but that move I did would have been perfect if we were playing tennis!)
  • Requires repeated exposure, so won’t work well when you don’t get to practice a lot or see examples over and over again. (e.g. Well, I’ve only done heart surgery two times before, but from what I can tell this doesn’t quite seem to be in the right place, so I’m going to abandon the standard procedure and improvise)
  • Doesn’t always provide us with conscious insight into why the prediction came out a certain way (e.g. I know that thing is designed to put food onto, but it still looks like a chair to me)

Careful analytical thought, and automatic processing relying on pattern matching are both extremely useful ways of approaching problems. When processing needs to be done quickly and you can train yourself through lots of examples with feedback, automatic processing may provide the best method for making predictions. But when chains of logical deduction are required, or evidence needs to be gathered and evaluated, or repeated exposure is not possible, or strong predictive theories exist, then as long as you have honed your thinking skills sufficiently well, conscious analysis will probably provide the best results.

4 thoughts on “Careful Analysis vs. Automatic Processing

  1. john says:

    Have you read Ivan Pavlov’s work? The common thought of “conditioned” (vs conditional) reflex seems to be a mistranslation*, leading to people seeing “automatic” responses as a dumbing down of the animal. But, I think his interpretation was that it was actually an increase of awareness/intelligence, and that the animal recognized certain conditions as temporary and responded accordingly. Perhaps the average person learning about Pavlov in high school would see little relation between your chess example and a dog responding to a bell, but I doubt Pavlov himself would.

    *In English, “condition” is a homonym that can mean “state of being” or “stipulation,” but I think each definition has its own word in Russian, one with latin origins and one with slavic. With this in mind, I don’t understand how such a translation error could occur.

    1. john says:

      I meant Pavlov himself would see the relation (or, Pavlov himself would not not see the relation).

  2. Ilya Kipnis says:

    But when you have the luxury to think about a problem, in my opinion, you should always take that luxury to come up with a well-thought-out answer.

    This is why I am in such favor of “take-home” programming assessments for technical roles, and not having to be put on the spot to solve ad-hoc brain benders or parrot out concepts and/or definitions from classes you may have had several years ago.

  3. Ashana M says:

    I find automatic processing allows me to access (and analyze) a great deal more information, and that is its main advantage. I can only keep a very small number of specific examples in mind when I am thinking effortfully (perhaps 4 or 5). I see the difference between automatic and effortful processing as being more about inductive vs. deductive reasoning. If I need to examine examples for patterns, automatic processing is the way to go. If I need to follow a chain of processing, effortful processing is more effective. Ideally, the two ways of thinking complement each other.

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