Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Automatic Processes in Behavior


Science 21 September 2012: 1492-1495

Changing Human Behavior to Prevent Disease: The Importance of Targeting Automatic Processes

Theresa M. Marteau, Gareth J. Hollands, Paul C. Fletcher

1Behaviour and Health Research Unit, Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 0SR, UK.

2Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 0SR, UK.


Much of the global burden of disease is associated with behaviorsovereating, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and physical inactivity—that people recognize as health-harming and yet continue to engage in, even when undesired consequences emerge. To date, interventions aimed at changing such behaviors have largely encouraged people to reflect on their behaviors. These approaches are often ineffectual, which is in keeping with the observation that much human behavior is automatic, cued by environmental stimuli, resulting in actions that are largely unaccompanied by conscious reflection. We propose that interventions targeting these automatic bases of behaviors may be more effective. We discuss specific interventions and suggest ways to determine whether and how interventions that target automatic processes can enhance global efforts to prevent disease.

Much human behavior is not actually driven by deliberation upon the consequences of actions, but is automatic, cued by stimuli in the environment, resulting in actions unaccompanied by conscious reflection.

Throughout our day, we shift between two broad categories of behavior. On the one hand, we may act in a reflective manner, directing ourselves toward particular goals, aware of our motivations and actions and able to halt or modify them should the need arise. In other instances, we act without reflection, responding to our surroundings in complex ways while our thoughts may be far removed. Each of these types of behavior has its advantages and disadvantages. The former is goal-directed, flexible, and rational insofar as it is motivated by explicit beliefs and desires. But it is also slow, cumbersome, and metabolically costly, absorbing our attention and preventing other processing. It is especially inefficient when it comes to routine situations: Why would one wish to deliberate over each stage of a familiar route home? The latter behaviors, in their automaticity, have the advantage of capitalizing on the routine and the predictable, freeing us to devote our cognitive capacity to other matters while nevertheless engaging in complex and fruitful actions. However, in becoming divorced from awareness and reflection, these automatic behaviors lose flexibility and may become out of touch with conscious desires, proceeding even when the consequences are unwanted. Thus, we may find ourselves taking the well-travelled route home when the original intention had been to call elsewhere.

Habits are actions that occur in response to stimuli without necessarily bringing to mind the goal of that action. Habits are contrasted with goal-directed behavior and form one class of automatic behavior. They become established by repetition and routine, their emergence being marked by measurable changes in brain circuits. Although habits constitute an important class of automatic behavior, it is important to note that not all automatic behavior is habitual. For example, viewing a beer advertisement on television may result in the viewer going to the fridge for a beer without awareness of the link between the ad and her behavior (i.e., it is a behavior cued when the environmental cue elicits the goal or desire), but this need not be a habitual response to watching television. Additionally, automatic behavior can be goal-directed. Finally, although automatic behaviors are generally considered to occur without awareness, automaticity is best considered as a continuum, with some automatic behaviors cued and enacted entirely outside of awareness (such as the mimicry of nonverbal behavior in social interactions), whereas for others, the cue and the ensuing behavior may be noticed while the causal link between the two occurs outside awareness (such as occurs in the priming effects on consumption of the advertising of food and alcohol.)

The key point here is that environmental cues can elicit both habitual actions in the absence of a conscious desire (the hand that dips into the open biscuit tin), or they can automatically, perhaps unconsciously, bring to mind a desire. In both cases, the behavior that emerges can be considered automatic and unlikely to be susceptible to modifications aimed at rational, reflective thought. This account of human behavior helps explain why health-harming behaviors  persist in the population and are so resistant to change.

Despite the work in brain and behavioral sciences demonstrating the dominance of automatic processes in guiding action, most interventions aimed at changing health-related behavior target reflective processes. At their simplest, these interventions entail providing information in an attempt to persuade people to change their behavior in, for example, mass media campaigns designed to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Priming is one mechanism to influence behavior  outside awareness.

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