In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Action Assembly Theory

  • Introduction
  • Temporal Characteristics of Speech as an Index of Cognitive Processes Involved in Message Production
  • Multiple-Goal Message Production
  • Adult Communication-Skill Acquisition
  • Creative Facility
  • Alternative Methodological Approaches

Communication Action Assembly Theory
John O. Greene
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0283


Rather than a single theory, “action assembly theory” actually refers to a family of theoretical formulations that have in common the basic idea that message-relevant thoughts (e.g., ideational content, plans) and overt verbal and nonverbal behaviors are produced by the activation (retrieval), and subsequent assembly (integration) of elemental action specifications held in long-term memory (LTM) as components of “procedural records”—modular structures that preserve action-outcome-in-situation relationships. Also common to the various action-assembly theories is the idea that the result of the assembly process is the “output representation,” a constantly evolving configuration of action features that effectively constitutes a person’s thoughts and actions at any moment. A primary focus of the action-assembly perspective is on explicating how it is possible for people to think, say, and do things that they have never thought, heard, or done before. Other concerns are with person and situational factors bearing on speech fluency, communication-skill acquisition, sources of social-performance deficits, message planning and editing processes, cognitive processes underlying the production of deceptive messages, cross-situational consistency in message behavior, the nature of the “self,” and the nature and function of consciousness.

Primary Theoretical Formulations

The various theories developed within the overarching action-assembly perspective are grounded in cognitive functionalism as an approach to theory-building. That is, theories are designed to account for observed input—output regularities by recourse to descriptions of the system of mental structures and processes that give rise to those regularities. Functionalist theories, then, are cast at the level of “mind” rather than “brain” (i.e., neurophysiological structures and processes). The initial action assembly theory (AAT) is presented in Greene 1984—an essay that was subsequently recognized by receipt of the National Communication Association’s Charles H. Woolbert Research Award in 1994. It is important to note that the title of this article is “A Cognitive Approach to Human Communication: An Action Assembly Theory”—the author’s use of the indefinite pronoun in the subtitle a deliberate nod to the potential for the development of other action assembly theories. A primary concern of the theory is the simultaneous patterned (repetitive) yet creative (novel) nature of verbal and nonverbal behavior. A series of subsequent theoretical statements trace further developments and extensions of the basic action-assembly perspective on the nature of the processes that give rise to overt verbal and nonverbal message behavior. Greene 1997 is the original presentation of second-generation action assembly theory (AAT2)—an alternative characterization of the structures and processes of the output system, but one fully in keeping with the general approach. Greene 2000 and Greene 2006 offer further conceptual extensions, with the former being particularly important in terms of its implications for goals-plan-action (G-P-A) models of message behavior. As a final example (among others) of AAT-theorizing, Greene and Geddes 1993 offers an alternative to standard theorizing about the nature of social skill, and performance deficits, that focuses on action-assembly characterizations of the activation and assembly processes.

  • Greene, J. O. 1984. A cognitive approach to human communication: An action assembly theory. Communication Monographs 51.4: 289–306.

    DOI: 10.1080/03637758409390203

    Key features of this conceptual framework include: (a) a modular conception of elemental long-term memory structures, (b) characterizations of the “activation” and “assembly” processes that operate over these memory structures, and (c) a four-level hierarchical “output representation” of action-to-be-taken. Other aspects of the theory include propositions addressing: (a) the “strength” of long-term memory representations, (b) the speed of activation of memory contents, (c) the processing-capacity demands of the assembly process, and (d) the development of “unitized assemblies” resulting from repeated activation and assembly of particular subsets of action specifications.

  • Greene, J. O. 1997. A second generation action assembly theory. In Message production: Advances in communication theory. Edited by J. O. Greene, 151–170. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    In contrast to Greene 1984, “AAT2” invokes no conception of a four-tiered output representation and the notion that within each level of that structure, assembly proceeds serially. In this formulation, assembly involves coalition formation—a melding of complementary action features that prolongs their time span of activation and increases the chances that they will be manifested in overt behavior. This formulation dispenses with a conception of limited processing resources, specifies a functional role for consciousness, and treats executive processes (e.g., planning, rehearsal, editing, etc.) without recourse to special-purpose processing systems.

  • Greene, J. O. 2000. Evanescent mentation: An ameliorative conceptual foundation for research and theory on message production. Communication Theory 10.2: 139–155.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2000.tb00184.x

    This essay foregrounds numerous conceptual issues largely ignored in goals-plan-action (G-P-A) formulations and offers an AAT2-based approach to addressing those lacunae. The resulting characterization of message-production processes is one “in which mental states and entities are seen to be evanescent, fast, shifting, and parallel, where overt message components may be disjointed and incoherent, where actions are specified at multiple representational levels, and where the mechanisms that govern the interplay of thoughts and actions are seen as essential concerns” (p. 144).

  • Greene, J. O. 2006. Have I got something to tell you: Ideational dynamics and message production. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 25.1: 64–75.

    DOI: 10.1177/0261927X05284481

    The focus of “ideational dynamics” is the question: “If thought drives talk, then what drives thought?” and, further, “If thought drives talk, then how does it do so?” Two types of “message-relevant ideations” (i.e., cognitive content of which the individual is consciously aware) are distinguished. Additional key points are that a great many other coalitions, of which the individual is not consciously aware, will also play a role in shaping overt behavior and that lower-level action specifications can drive higher level mentation.

  • Greene, J. O., and D. Geddes. 1993. An action assembly perspective on social skill. Communication Theory 3.1: 26–49.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1993.tb00054.x

    Across a variety of treatments of social skill, performance quality is typically seen to be a function of knowledge (or ability) and motivation, and skill deficits are thought to arise when either or both of these components are absent or insufficient. Greene and Geddes propose an action-assembly-based formulation to address the fact that individuals may possess perfectly adequate knowledge/ability and motivation, and yet still fail to perform in optimal ways. This approach locates various types of performance deficits in the nature and characteristics of the activation and assembly processes.

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