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100 Things You Should Know About People: #99 — Well Practiced Skills Don't Require Conscious Attention



Person playing the violin
Guthrie Weinschenk Playing Violin

I have two grown children. The entire time they were growing up they took Suzuki method music lessons. My son studied violin, and my daughter studied piano. After attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals, I asked her what she was thinking about while she was performing the piano sonata piece (from memory, no music in front of her). Was she thinking about the dynamics of the music? When to get louder or softer? About particular notes or passages that were coming up? Speed or tempo? She looked at me in confusion. “Thinking?”, she said, “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m just watching my fingers play the song.” It was my turn to be confused. I turned to my son and said, “Is that how you play the violin in a recital? Are you thinking?” “No, of course I’m not thinking, he answered. I’m watching my fingers play the violin too.”

Muscle memory — The Suzuki method of music instruction (and perhaps other methods too, it’s the only one I’m really familiar with) requires students to intensely practice particular skills on their instrument. In a Suzuki recital students usually do not have music in front of them. All the pieces (and quite complicated pieces) are memorized. This requires that particular passages and songs be practiced over and over. A term that is used in music instruction is “muscle memory”. The piece is practiced so often, that the muscles remember how to play it on its own, without thinking involved.

Automatic execution? — If a skill is practiced so well that it is automatic, then it can be performed with a minimum of conscious attention. If it is really automatic then it almost allows multi-tasking. I say almost because multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.

Too many automatic steps can lead to error — Have you ever been using a software application that requires you to go through a series of steps in order to delete an item? You have to click on the item you’re your mouse, then click on the delete key, then a window pops up and you have to click on the “Yes” button to confirm. You need to do about 25 of these, so you position your fingers on the mouse and keyboard in an optimal way and start pressing and clicking. Before too long your fingers have taken over, and you aren’t even thinking about what you are doing. It’s very easy in this type of situation to accidentally keep deleting past where you were supposed to.

What do you think? Are there tasks you do automatically?


2 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #99 — Well Practiced Skills Don't Require Conscious Attention”

  1. Costa Balamatsias Avatar

    Agreed. Too many automatic steps can lead to error.

    We get so use to performing certain tasks in a particular order, that when a GUI differs, even just slightly, we either get completely lost or end up doing something completely different, yielding a rather negative result.

    I find that banking sites can be the worst offenders in this category. More often than not, they update their interfaces, altering the flow of certain transactions, without any warning or indication that something has changed.

    Most people do notice that something has changed, but older people who are perhaps a little too trusting and at times a touch too naive, click along happily because that’s what they’re used to, until they realise that they’ve not actually achieved what they set out to do, or God forbid, something far worse.

    Thanks for your insightful books and articles. Very few write about the cognitive behaviour of users and none quite as succinctly :)

  2. Julie Avatar

    This is so true. Sometimes when reading/deleting emails, I get so used to doing “Delete – OK” that I sometimes accidentally delete some important emails without knowing it.

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