Bottom-Up Processing in Psychology: Examples, Definition & Quiz
In this lesson, you'll learn what bottom-up processing is and review some examples of this decision-making strategy. Then, test your knowledge with a quiz.
We also recommend watching Attention and Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Processing and Clinical Interviews in Psychological Assessment: Purpose, Process, & Limitations
Bottom-Up Processing Defined
People are generally encouraged to think before acting; however, you may have found that, sometimes, you make good decisions without thinking about them first. For example, if someone offered you your favorite flavor of ice cream, but it was topped with pickles and hot sauce, chances are you'd be able to turn it down right away without first having to give it a thought (unless you like that sort of thing). The reason you could reject that ice cream without first having to stop and think is because of a strategy called bottom-up processing.
Processing Types Compared
Processing is just a shorter way to say 'taking in information, analyzing it, and drawing conclusions or taking action.' Processing involves the brain, the body, and emotions. There are two types of processing: top-down and bottom-up. Let's look at our ice cream scenario again:
In top-down processing, your brain is active first. You might think, 'How nice. My friend is offering me ice cream, and I would like some. I should take that from her. I wonder what kind it is.' This thought leads to emotion (happy, excited, grateful, curious), and then a response in the body (increased heart rate, smile, arms reaching out).
Bottom-up processing is simply about the process moving in the opposite direction: First comes the response in the body (eyes see the bowl and contents, nose smells chocolate, pickles, and hot sauce, stomach churns, face grimaces, head turns away). This leads to emotion (repulsion, disappointment) and the brain's cognition and directive for action (thinking, 'That's nasty' and saying, 'No, thank you.'). As you can see from the chart below, bottom-up processing starts with the body and ends in the brain.
Occurrence of Bottom-Up Processing
As you can imagine, bottom-up processing can happen very quickly and with many processes all going on at once. Often, the time it takes for the process to start in the body and end with the brain is so fast that it is almost impossible to separate the steps. While we may be more familiar with talking about how we think than our body sensations, many would argue that bottom-up processing occurs much more frequently than top-down and that most of our decisions are made because of how our bodies react to the environment.
Being attracted to someone, having a hunch, and having a knee-jerk reaction are all examples of experiences in which thinking things through comes last, if it happens at all. In the larger scheme of things, bottom-up processing is essential, because it can save our lives. In the case of avoiding an on-coming car, it's good that we don't have to stop and think about what is going on before acting. If a car is careening towards you at an alarming speed, it would be dangerous to sit there and think, 'Hmm, that's interesting. I don't think that driver is aware that he is in my lane. I wonder if he has been drinking or if he's fallen asleep at the wheel. I should probably steer my car to the right….' Obviously, if top-down processing was the only way we could analyze things, a lot of us would meet an early demise!
Bottom-up processing is the processing strategy in which the body responds first, followed by emotion and finally thought. This is the opposite progression of responses found in top-down processing. As you become aware of the bottom-up processing that happens in you, you can start to be curious about the signals your body gives you and learn to how to trust your gut.
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