Is there a Place for Cognitive Style in Contemporary Psychology and Neuroscience? Issues in Definition and Conceptualization

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Maria Kozhevnikov

The second CMBC lunch talk of the semester featured a presentation by Dr. Maria Kozhevnikov (Radiology, Harvard School of Medicine; Psychology, National University of Singapore), who has been a visiting scholar of the CMBC this fall. Dr. Kozhevnikov offered a critical perspective on the current state of cognitive style research within different research traditions, such as cognitive neuroscience, education, and business management. Kozhevnikov opted to treat the lunch talk as an opportunity for group discussion, which promoted a lively dialogue among the participants.

Traditional research on cognitive style began in the early 1950’s and focused on perception and categorization. During this time, numerous experimental studies attempted to identify individual differences in visual cognition and their potential relation to personality differences. The cognitive style concept was thereafter used in the 50’s and 60’s to describe patterns of mental processing which help an individual cope with his or her environment. According to this understanding, cognitive style referred to an individual’s ability to adapt to the requirements of the external world, given his or her basic capacities. Researchers tended to discuss cognitive style in terms of bipolarity—the idea that there are two value-equal poles of style dimensions. For example, a host of binary dimensions were proposed in the literature, such as impulsivity/reflexivity, holist/serialist, verbalizer/visualizer, and so on. No attempt was made, however, to integrate these competing style dimensions into a coherent framework. By the late 1970’s, a standard definition referred to cognitive style as “a psychological dimension representing individual differences in cognition,” or “an individual’s manner of cognitive functioning, particularly with respect to acquiring and processing information” (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978).

Kozhevnikov questioned the usefulness of such definitions and pointed to a general lack of clarity with regard to how the term “cognitive style” was employed in early research. Moreover, several participants at the lunch talk noted further problems with the idea of cognitive style. For instance, if the notion of “style” is a distinct cognitive category, how is it different from basic abilities or strategies? What does the concept of style add in this respect? While it is obvious that there exist individual differences in cognition, it was notoriously difficult to determine exactly how styles differed from intellectual and personality abilities. On account of these conceptual difficulties, among others, cognitive style research fell out of favor and virtually disappeared after the late 1970’s, to the point where even mentioning the term in psychology and neuroscience settings has become taboo.

The concept of cognitive style lived on, however, in the field of education, where it quickly became associated with the idea of learning styles. Kolb (1974) defined learning styles as “adaptive learning modes,” each of which offers a patterned way of resolving problems in learning situations. The idea of individual learning styles in turn gave rise to the so-called “matching hypothesis”—the suggestion that students learn better when their learning style is aligned with the style of instruction. Although the hypothesis appeared reasonable, it has not found empirical support; studies have not been able to establish that aligning teaching with student styles confers a discernable benefit. It is worth noting, however, that this observation does not rule out the existence of learning style altogether. Kozhevnikov asked us to consider the martial artist Bruce Lee, who when asked what fighting style is best, responded that the best fighting style is no style. The point is that it pays to be flexible, that is, to be able to use different styles—in either fighting or learning—in different situations. Learning style instruments have become popular in education and tend to use a combination of different style dimensions that can be quite complex.

The business world has also adopted the idea of cognitive style, in the form of professional decision-making styles. In management, researchers have been intensely focused on the “right brain-left brain” idea, which is frequently invoked in style categorization. The most popular bipolarity, for example, is that of analytic/intuitive (thought to correspond to left- and right-brain, respectively). Kozhevnikov was quick to point out, however, that this theory has no basis in neuroscience. Lastly, in parallel to education learning style instruments, business has likewise incorporated its own instruments for identifying personal styles. The most famous of these is the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Beginning in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, recent studies from cross-cultural psychology and neuroscience have demonstrated that culture-specific experiences may affect distinct patterns of information processing. Kozhevnikov reported that these “cultural-sensitive individual differences in cognition” have been identified at cognitive, neural, and perceptual levels, and appear to be shaped in part by socio-cultural experiences. Several studies, for example, have explored these transcultural differences in East Asian and Western populations. Researchers identified greater tendencies among East Asian individuals to engage in context-dependent cognitive processes, as well as to favor intuitive understanding through direct perception rather than an analytic approach involving abstract principles. Moreover, these individual differences appear independent of general intelligence. At least one participant expressed initial reservation about such research, remarking that the talk of the East-West binary tends to postulate artificial groups (e.g. what exactly is “Eastern culture”?).

Nevertheless, the finding that cognitive style can be represented by specific patterns of neural activity—independent of differences in cognitive ability measures—lends support to the validity of the cognitive style concept. According to this picture, then, Kozhevnikov redefines cognitive style as “culture-sensitive patterns of cognitive processing that can operate at different levels of information processing.”

Assuming this research is on the right track, the next question becomes: how many cognitive styles are there? As we have seen, early studies on cognitive style proliferated a large number of styles and dimensions, which further multiplied with the introduction of learning and decision-making styles. A unitary structure, such as the analytical/intuitive binary common in business circles, fails to capture the complexity of styles. More recent theories have therefore proposed multilevel hierarchical models, which include both a horizontal (e.g. analytical/holistic) level and a vertical dimension to reflect different stages of information processing (e.g. perception, thought, memory). Thus, different stages in processing reflect different cognitive styles.

Building upon this important theoretical modeling, Kozhevnikov proposed a model of cognitive style families with orthogonal dimensions. According to this proposal, it would be possible to map all the different proposed styles onto a matrix with 4×4 cells. On the horizontal axis are different dimensions that include context dependency/independency; rule-based/intuitive processing; internal/external locus of processing; and integration/compartmentalization. The cells on the vertical axis correspond to levels of cognitive processing, such as perception; concept formation; higher-order cognitive processing; and metacognitive processing. Kozhevnikov suggested that this theoretical framework offers a means of categorizing and unifying the array of style types and dimensions—from traditional styles to learning and decision-making styles—into a single matrix with multiple cells that accentuate both the relevant horizontal and vertical dimensions.



Ausburn, L. J., and Ausburn, F. B. 1978. Cognitive Styles: Some Information and Implications for Instructional Design. Educational Communication and Technology 26: 337-54.

Kolb, D. A. 1974. On Management and the Learning Process. InOrganizational Psychology, ed. D. A. Kolb, I. M. Rubin, and J. M. McInture, 239-52. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

About Brett Maiden

Brett is a doctoral candidate in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion specializing in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. His dissertation, “Cognitive Aspects of Ancient Israelite Religion,” utilizes tools from the cognitive and brain sciences to explore how pan-cultural proclivities shaped local expression of religion, art, and culture in ancient Israel. Brett earned a Bachelor’s in Religious Studies and Classics from the University of Arizona and a Master’s in biblical languages from Yale. At Emory, he is an affiliate of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture and has served as a fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.
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