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Cognitive style

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Cognitive style is a term used in cognitive psychology to describe the way individuals think, perceive and remember information, or their preferred approach to using such information to solve problems. Cognitive style differs from cognitive ability (or level), the latter being measured by aptitude tests or so-called intelligence tests. Controversy exists over the exact meaning of the term cognitive style and also as to whether it is a single or multiple dimension of human personality. However, it remains a key concept in the areas of education and management. If a pupil has a similar cognitive style to his/her teacher, the chances that the pupil will have a more positive learning experience is said to be improved [citation needed]. Likewise, team members with similar cognitive styles will probably feel more positive about their participation in the team[citation needed]. While the matching of cognitive styles may make participants feel more comfortable when working with one another, this alone cannot guarantee the success of the outcome. Some of the existing notions and measures of cognitive style are now discussed.

Multi-dimensional models and measures

Cognitive Style AnalysisRiding developed a two-dimensional cognitive style instrument, his [1] (CSA), which is a compiled computer-presented test that measures individuals’ position on two orthogonal dimensions:

  • Wholist-Analytic (W-A) This dimension reflects how individuals organise and structure information. Individuals described as Analytics will deconstruct information into its component parts, whereas individuals described as Wholists will retain a global or overall view of information.
  • Verbal-Imagery (V-I). – This dimension describes individuals’ mode of information representation in memory during thinking Verbalisers represent information words or verbal associations, and Imagers represent information in mental pictures. The CSA test is broken down into three sub-tests, all of which are based on a comparison between response times to different types of stimulus items.

Some scholars argue that this instrument, being at least in part reliant on the ability of the respondent to answer at speed, really measures a mix of cognitive style and cognitive ability. This is said to contribute to the unreliability of this instrument.

Bipolar, one-dimensional models and measures

The field dependence-independence model, invented by H. Witkin, identifies an individual’s perceptive behaviour while distinguishing object figures from the content field in which they are set. Two similar instruments to do this were produced,

In both cases, the content field is a distracting or confusing background. These instruments are designed to distinguish field dependence (field-independent from field-dependent) cognitive types; a rating which is claimed to be value-neutral. Field-independent people tend to be more autonomous when it comes to the development of restructuring skills; that is, those skills required during technical tasks with which the individual is not necessarily familiar. They are, however, less autonomous in the development of interpersonal skills. The EFT and GEFT continue to enjoy support and usage in research and practice. However, they, too, are criticized by scholars as containing an element of ability and so may not measure cognitive style alone.

Hudson identified two cognitive styles: convergent thinkers, good at accumulating material from a variety of sources relevant to a problem’s solution, and divergent thinkers who proceed more creatively and subjectively in their approach to problem-solving. Hudson’s converger-diverger construct attempts to measure the processing rather than the acquisition of information by an individual. It aims to differentiate convergent from divergent thinkers; the former being persons who think rationally and logically while the latter tend to be more flexible and to base reasoning more on heuristic evidence.

In contrast, cognitive complexity theories ([4]) as proposed by Beiri, attempt to identify individuals who are more complex in their approach to problem-solving against those who are simpler. The instruments used to measure this concept of ‘cognitive style’ are either Driver’s Decision Style Exercise (DDSE) or the Complexity Self-Test Description Instrument, which are somewhat ad hoc and so are little used at present.

Pask extended these notions in a discussion of strategies and styles of learning. In this, he classifies learning strategies as either holist or serialist. When confronted with an unfamiliar type of problem, holists gather information randomly within a framework, while serialists approach problem-solving step-wise, proceeding from the known to the unknown.

Ornstein’s hemispherical lateralisation concept, commonly called left-brain/right-brain theory, posits that the left hemisphere of the brain controls logical and analytical operations while the right hemisphere controls holistic, intuitive and pictorial activities. Cognitive style is thus claimed to be a single dimension on a scale from extreme left-brain to extreme right-brain types, depending on which associated behaviour dominates in the individual, and by how much.

Taggart’s (1988) ‘Whole-brain human information processing theory’ classifies the brain as having six divisions, three per hemisphere, which in a sense is a refined model of the hemispherical lateralisation theory discussed above.

The Allinson-Hayes Cognitive Style Index (CSI) has features of Ornstein’s left-brain / right-brain theory. The CSI contains 38 items, each rated using a 3-point scale (true; uncertain; false). Some scholars have questioned the CSI’s construct validity on the grounds of theoretical and methodological limitations associated with its development. It is also noteworthy that this measure of cognitive style is both gender-sensitive and culture-sensitive. While it is entirely plausible that cognitive style is related to these social factors, it does complicate some educational and management issues. It suggests, for instance, that a given student is best taught by a person of a certain sex or culture; or that only persons of certain cultures can work harmoniously together in teams.

A model and instrument which evidently measures cognitive style to the exclusion of cognitive level

One of the most popular models of cognitive style was devised by Kirton. His model, called Adaption-Innovation theory, claims that an individual’s preferred approach to problem solving, can be placed on a continuum ranging from high adaption to high innovation. He suggests that some human beings, called adaptors tend to prefer the adaptive approach to problem-solving, while others (innovators), of course, prefer the reverse. Adaptors use what is given to solve problems by time-honored techniques. Alternatively, innovators look beyond what is given to solve problems with the aid of innovative technologies. Kirton suggests that while adaptors prefer to do well within a given paradigm, innovators would rather do differently, thereby striving to transcend existing paradigms.

Kirton also invented an instrument to measure cognitive style (at least in accordance with this model) known as the Kirton Adaption-innovation Inventory (KAI). This requires the respondent to rate themselves against thirty-two personality traits. A drawback of all the other efforts to measure cognitive style discussed above is their failure to separate out cognitive style and cognitive level. As the items on the KAI are expressed in clear and simple language cognitive level plays no significant role. Scores on the A-I continuum are normally distributed between the extreme cognitive styles of high innovation and high adaption.

Another important concept associated with A-I theory is that of bridging in teams. Kirton (2003) defines bridging as "reaching out to people in the team and helping them be part of it so that they may contribute even if their contribution is outside the main-stream". Bridging is thus a task and a role, which has to be learnt. It is not a cognitive style. Bridging is also not leading, although the skilled leader may make use of persons they recognise as good bridgers to maintain group cohesion. Group cohesion means, to keep the group aware of the importance of its members working well together. Kirton (2003) suggests that it is easier for a person to learn and assume a bridging role if their cognitive style is an intermediate one. If person B assumes a bridging role which assists persons A and C to work well together in a team, then B's KAI score is recommended to be between those of A and C. Of course, it is only recommended that B's score lies between the scores of A and C, not that B's score lies near the KAI mean. All of A, B and C could be high-scoring innovators or, for that matter, high-scoring adaptors.

The Kai has been shown in numerous studies not to be affected by either gender or culture differences. A person's score, provided the reading was taken when they were 18 years or older, exhibits very little change with time.

See also


  • Allinson, C.W., and Hayes, J. “The cognitive style index: a measure of intuition-analysis for organisational research”, Journal of Management Studies (33:1), January 1996, pp 119-135.
  • Beiri, J. “Complexity-simplicity as a personality variable in cognitive and preferential behaviour” Dorsey Press, Homewood, IL, 1961.
  • Bobic, M., Davis, E., and Cunningham, R. “The Kirton adaption-innovation inventory”, Review of Public Personnel Administration (19:2), Spring 1999, pp 18-31.
  • Carey, J.M. “The issue of cognitive style in MIS/DSS research”, 1991.
  • Kirton, M. “Adaptors and innovators: a description and measure”, Journal of Applied Psychology (61:5) 1976, pp 622-629.
  • Kirton, M.J. “Field Dependence and Adaption Innovation Theories”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1978, 47, pp 1239 1245.
  • Kirton, M. J. Adaption and innovation in the context of diversity and change Routledge, London, 2003, P. 392
  • Mullany, M.J. “Using cognitive style measurements to forecast user resistance”, 14th Annual conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications, Napier, New Zealand, 2001, pp. 95-100.
  • Peterson, E. R., & Deary, I. J. (2006). Examining wholistic-analytic style using preferences in early information processing. Personality and Individual Differences, 41, 3-14.
  • Pask, G. “Styles and Strategies of Learning”, British Journal of Educational Psychology (46:II) 1976, pp 128-148.
  • Riding, R.J., and Cheema, I. “Cognitive styles - An overview and integration.”, Educational Psychology (11:3/4) 1991, pp 193-215.
  • Riding, R.J., and Sadler-Smith, E. “Type of instructional material, cognitive style and learning performance.”, Educational Studies (18:3) 1992, pp 323-340.
  • Witkin, H.A., Moore, C.A., Goodenough, D.R., and Cox, P.W. “Field dependent and field independent cognitive styles and their educational implications”, Review of Educational Research (47:1), Winter 1977, pp 1-64.

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