Social Cognitive Processing

Unconscious Cognitive Processing

“Bargh (1994) has described four elements necessary for identifying an automatic process: lack of conscious intent, efficiency, lack of awareness, and lack of control” (as cited in Moskowitz, 2005, p. 86).  A mere four years later, Wegner and Bargh (1998) opted to relax some of the constraints defining automaticity stating that

Conscious control occurs with a conscious intention of what the control will accomplish, a sense or feeling of control, an expenditure of effort in the control action, and a (closed-loop) monitoring of the control output… Automaticity is used to refer to a family of processes, which share only the lack of some one or a subset of these features.  Automaticity, then, is a negatively defined concept – an absence of at least one key quality of conscious control (p. 463).

Therefore, using the definition of automaticity wherein one or more elements of control may be lacking, my example involves a simple job task: answering the telephone in a legal office.  I work as a legal assistant, which requires a great deal of multitasking and efficiency.  On any given day, I can easily answer the telephone between 20 and 30 times in addition to a multitude of other simultaneous tasks: transcription, paying bills, ordering supplies, filing, and bookkeeping.  I have worked in this position for a period of eight years.  Assuming a typical work week of 5 days, 50 weeks in a year, answering the telephone (conservatively) 20 times per day – it is possible I have answered the telephone over 40,000 times with the following script “Good ____, Law Office.”  According to the concept of skill acquisition “activities frequently and consistently engaged in require less and less conscious effort over time” (Wegner & Bargh, 1998, p. 459).  I was already aware that I had automated this behavior because there have been times I have answered my cell phone with “Good ___, Law Office.”  What I had not realized until my husband recently informed me, was that not only do I answer the phone with the script, including the appropriately “morning, afternoon, or evening” response, but apparently, I also change my tone to reflect helpfulness and kindness.  This modified behavior is more than simple skill acquisition because it speaks to the very heart of the topic this week: unconscious social cognition.  “Social cognition involves the cognitive processes involved in how individuals think about themselves, other people, social situations, and interactions” (Addington, Girard, Christensen, & Addington, 2010, p. 49).  Hence, my altered personality, as reflected in my tone, indicates a desire (previously unrealized) to be considered helpful, kind, and respectful by the callers / clients.

This initial scripted behavior falls within the postconscious, goal-dependent automaticity category because it is goal-directed, but largely unconscious.  The stimuli are two-fold because there is a visual stimulus (red light) that blinks just prior to the auditory stimulus (telephone ringing).  In many instances, callers have commented that the telephone never even rang because I apparently picked it up upon the first stimulus and responded (according to script) prior to the second stimulus occurring.

This behavior is beneficial because I am always multitasking.  The phone is close enough that I can register the blinking light or hear the ring while I am transcribing dictation, filing, paying the office bills, etc.  It is also beneficial because I have seemingly automated the helpfulness tonality ensuring that clients will feel comfortable speaking with me, although I am quite certain my tone changes dramatically upon discovering the interruption of my more difficult conscious-required job responsibilities to speak with a sales person.

Conscious Cognitive Processing

Again, although initial answering of the telephone results in an automated responsive greeting, what occurs thereafter falls within the conscious cognitive processing category because my response to the caller’s request or purpose is controlled and responded to via conscious processing of the request or purpose.  The caller’s purpose becomes the control action and resolution of the caller’s request or purpose becomes the control criterion (Wegner & Bargh, 1998).  Specifically, I must determine the caller’s purpose, and how to respond to that purpose or request (i.e., do I forward the call to the attorney, take a message, or in the case of a sales person, get rid of them), and execute that behavior.  According to Wegner and Bargh (1998), “the elements of control in psychological theory center on the description of the closed-loop control or feedback system.  Such a control system changes something (produces output) by performing an operation (a control action) whenever it is discovered (by a monitoring process) that there is a discrepancy between the system’s output and a desired state (a control criterion)” (p. 453).  Therefore, the caller provides me information (input), which I must process (monitoring), and make a determination of what to do for the caller (action output) (Wegner & Bargh, 1998).  In this instance the control criterion is effectively resolving the call, whether by completing a message for the attorney, answering the caller’s question, setting an appointment, or forwarding the call to the attorney.

This behavior affects me directly in that I must be able to convey appropriate information to my boss, the attorney, upon his request.  There is only the two of us in the office and he relies on me to provide accurate information, an assessment of the caller’s purpose, frame of mind, and often intent.  Additionally, as the gatekeeper I must be able to determine when the call requires interrupting the attorney, is emergent, or can wait until the attorney has a more opportune time to call the person back.  Although this is a minor feature of my many job responsibilities, it is still a job responsibility and part and parcel of being a good employee, my employer having positive feelings of my job performance, and my self-efficacy and confidence in my performance of my job responsibilities as well.


Addington, J., Girard, T. A., Christensen, B. K., & Addington, D. (2010). Social cognition mediates illness-related and cognitive influences on social function in patients with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 35(1), 49-54. doi:10.1503/jpn.080039

Moskowitz, G. B. (2005). Social cognition: Understanding self and others. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Wegner, D. M., & Bargh, J. A. (1998). Control and automaticity in social life. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed., pp. 446-496). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


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