You’re driving and after several miles you question if you even braked for that stop sign behind you. You tie your shoes without needing to remember the bunny ears rhyme. You drum on your keyboard for hours a day and don’t even think about the keys that you’re hitting.
It’s all subconscious, seemingly second-nature at this point.
A new study from Vanderbilt University psychologists found that, in cases like these, people really might not know what they’re doing.
Studying the actions and knowledge of skilled typists, the researchers found many typists didn’t know the position of keys on the QWERTY keyboard, and novice typists who were just learning to type properly didn’t seem to be learning the actual key locations at all either.
“This demonstrates that we’re capable of doing extremely complicated things without knowing explicitly what we are doing,” said Vanderbilt University graduate student Kristy Snyder, the first author of the study.
Snyder tested the typing skills of 100 people, finding the average person typed 72 words per minute and achieved 94 percent accuracy on the blank keyboard they used. But when asked to fill in the correct letter placement on a blank QWERTY keyboard, the average person only got 15 letters correct.
The phenomenon of performing an action without conscious thought is known as automatism. The phenomenon was previously known, but it was widely believed the actions became unconscious after being consciously learned. Snyder’s study with typing shows that, in a way, the keyboard was likely never memorized.
“It appears that not only don’t we know much about what we are doing but we can’t know it because we don’t consciously learn how to do it in the first place,” said Gordon Logan, Snyder’s adviser who supervised the study.
“Their fingers know where the keys are but they have no explicit knowledge of it. Their conscious awareness is pretty hazy,” Logan said in a video about the research.
According the study news release, the researchers believe this phenomenon might occur because of how widespread computer and keyboard use has become.
The research was published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.