Thought: Using What We Know
- Thinking is the mental manipulation of information. Our mental representations simplify and summarize information from the environment.
- A concept is a mental category that groups objects, relations, activities, abstractions, or qualities that share certain properties. Prototypical instances of a concept are more representative than others. Propositions are made up of concepts and express a unitary idea. They may be linked together to form cognitive schemas, which serve as mental models of aspects of the world. Mental images also play a role in thinking.
- Not all mental processing is conscious. Subconscious processes lie outside of awareness but can be brought into consciousness when necessary. Nonconscious processes remain outside of awareness but nonetheless affect behavior and may be involved in what we call "intuition" and "insight" and in implicit learning. Conscious processing may be carried out in a mindless fashion if we overlook changes in context that call for a change in behavior.
- Reasoning is purposeful mental activity that involves drawing inferences and conclusions from observations, facts, or assumptions (premises).
- Formal reasoning problems can often be solved by applying an algorithm, a set of procedures that are guaranteed to produce a solution, or by using logical processes, such as deductive and inductive reasoning. (See Live!Psych module 7.1, Algorithms and Heurisitics, for more information on this topic. Additionally, web destination #1, Psychology Games Online, in the Psychology on the Web module features online games that require effective problem-solving strategies.)
- Informal reasoning problems often have no clearly correct solution. Disagreement may exist about basic premises, information may be incomplete, and many viewpoints may compete. Such problems may call for the application of heuristics, rules of thumb that suggest a course of action without guaranteeing an optimal solution. (For more practice with problem solving strategies, go to question # 2 in the Internet Activities module.) They may also require dialectical thinking about opposing points of view.
- Studies of reflective judgment show that many people have trouble thinking dialectically. People in the prereflective stages do not distinguish between knowledge and belief, or between belief and evidence. Those in the quasi-reflective stages think that because knowledge is sometimes uncertain, any judgment about the evidence is purely subjective. Those whose think reflectively understand that although some things cannot be known with certainty, some judgments are more valid than others because of their coherence, usefulness, fit with the evidence, and so on. Higher education moves people gradually closer to reflective judgment.
Barriers to Reasoning Rationally
- The need to be right is an obstacle to rational thinking, as is mental laziness, which many commentators think is encouraged by increased television watching. (For more practice with obstacles to rational thinking, see question #3 in the Internet Activities module.)
- The ability to reason clearly and rationally is also affected by many cognitive biases. People tend to exaggerate the likelihood of improbable events, in part because of the availability heuristic; to be swayed in their choices by the desire to avoid loss; to be mentally rigid, forming mental sets and seeing patterns where none exists; to overestimate their ability to have made accurate predictions (the hindsight bias) and to attend mostly to evidence that confirms what they want to believe (the confirmation bias). (For more information on this topic, see Live!Psych module 7.2, Obstacles to Problem Solving.)
- The theory of cognitive dissonance holds that people are also motivated to reduce the tension that exists when two cognitions conflictby rejecting or changing a belief, changing their behavior, or rationalizing. People are especially likely to do so when they need to justify a decision (i.e., reduce postdecision dissonance); when their actions violate their self-concept; or when they have put hard work into an activity (the justification of effort). (To read the original article that appeared in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology written by the cognitive dissonance theorists, go to question #1 in the Internet Activities module.)
- People are not always rational, but once we understand a bias, we may be able to reduce or eliminate it.
- Intelligence is hard to define. Some theorists believe that a general ability (a g factor) underlies the many specific abilities tapped by intelligence tests, whereas others do not. (To read about the APAs official position on intelligence, see web destination #2, APA Task Force Examines the Knowns and Unknowns of Intelligence, in the Psychology on the Web module.)
- The traditional approach to intelligence, the psychometric approach, focuses on how well people perform on standardized aptitude tests. The intelligence quotient, or IQ, represents how a person has done on an intelligence test, compared to other people. Alfred Binet designed the first widely used intelligence test for the purpose of identifying children who could benefit from remedial work. But in the United States, people assumed that intelligence tests revealed "natural ability," and they used the tests to categorize people in school and in the armed services. (To read brief histories of individuals who influenced the development of intelligence theory and testing, go to the Psychology on the Web module and visit web destination #9, History of the Influences in the Development of Intelligence Theory & Testing.)
- IQ tests have been criticized for being biased in favor of white, middle-class people. However, efforts to construct culture-free and culture-fair tests have been disappointing. Culture affects nearly everything to do with taking a test, from attitudes to problem-solving strategies. Negative stereotypes about a persons ethnicity, gender, or age may cause the person to suffer stereotype threat, a burden of doubt about his or her own abilities, which can lead to anxiety or "disidentification" with the test.
- Many schools now use IQ tests only with individual students being evaluated for special programs. But critics still worry about cultural biases and point out that the tests do not tell how a person arrives at an answer or solves a problem. (For more information on IQ tests, go to the Psychology on the Web module and visit web destination #8, IQ: The Structure for Understanding.)
- In contrast to the psychometric approach, cognitive approaches to intelligence emphasize the strategies people use to solve problems, not just whether they get the right answers. Sternbergs triarchic theory of intelligence proposes three aspects of intelligence: componential (including metacognition), experiential, and contextual. Contextual intelligence allows you to acquire tacit knowledge, practical strategies that are important but not explicitly taught. (TIP: Sternbergs triarchic theory of intelligence is discussed in the Psychology on the Web module, in web destination #4, Triarchic Theory of Intelligence.)
- Intelligence in one domain does not necessarily imply intelligence in another. Howard Gardner proposes that there are actually several "intelligences" besides those usually considered, including musical and kinesthetic intelligence, and the capacity to understand the natural world, yourself, or others. The latter two overlap with what many psychologists call emotional intelligence, which is associated with personal, academic, and occupational success. (TIP: See web destination #5, Gardners Theory of Multiple Intelligences, in the Psychology on the Web module for more information about Gardners theory of multiple intelligences. Additionally, information about Project SUMIT and Project Zero, which is based on Gardners multiple theory of intelligences, can be found on web destinations #6 and #7 respectively in the Psychology on the Web module. )
The Origins of Intelligence
- Behavioralgenetic studies estimate the heritability of intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) to be high: about .50 for children and adolescents and .60 to .80 for adults. But these results do not mean that genes determine intelligence, or that group differences in intelligence are genetic. It is not valid to draw conclusions about ethnic differences in intelligence from estimates based on differences within a group. The available evidence fails to support genetic explanations of these differences.
- Environmental factors such as poor prenatal care, malnutrition, exposure to toxins, and stressful family circumstances are associated with lower performance on mental tests; and a healthy and stimulating environment can improve performance. (For more information on the continuing controversy over the influence of genes and the environment on IQ scores, go to the Psychology on the Web module and visit web destination #10, IQ-Genetics or Environment.)
- Intellectual achievement also depends on motivation and attitudes. Cross-cultural work shows that beliefs about the origins of mental abilities, parental standards, and attitudes toward education can help account for differences in academic performance.
- Some researchers, especially those in the field of cognitive ethology, argue that nonhuman animals have greater cognitive abilities than is usually thought. Some animals can use objects as rudimentary tools. Chimpanzees have learned to use numerals to label quantities of items and symbols to refer to objects. Great apes sometimes do things that suggest they have some understanding of their own minds and the minds of others work, though not all researchers agree.
- In several projects using visual symbol systems or American Sign Language (ASL), primates have acquired linguistic skills. Some animals (even some nonprimates) seem able to use simple grammatical ordering rules to convey or comprehend meaning. However, scientists are still divided as to how to interpret these findings, with some worrying about authropomorphism and others about anthropodenial.