Cognitive Styles

Different people have different ways of thinking. The concept of cognitive styles addresses this issue, defining different overall patterns of thinking or approaching problems.

Analytic vs. Holistic Thinking

One of the most common distinctions in the literature on cognitive style is between analytic and holistic styles. Analytic thinking involves understanding a system by thinking about its parts and how they work together to produce larger-scale effects. Holistic thinking involves understanding a system by sensing its large-scale patterns and reacting to them.

What is the difference between analytic and holistic thinking? What style of thinking is defined as "intelligence" by Whimbey?

This is yet another example of the "two modes of thought" identified by Neisser in 1963 (see Chapter 3). For example, ponder this definition of intelligence from Whimbey (1975).

Intelligence is paying careful skilled attention to the analysis of relations. (p.119)

That sounds like a Bruner's definition of analytic thought from Chapter 3, or Gardner's definition of logical-mathematical intelligence from the section on "multiple intelligences" in Chapter 2. Here is a slightly more elaborate version of Whimbey's definition of intelligence.

Intelligence is an attentional/processing skill used in analyzing and mentally reconstructing relations. The distinguishing feature of this skill is breaking complex relations (or problems) into small steps that can be dealt with fully. The major components of the skill are extensive search and careful apprehension of all details relevant to the relation; thorough utilization of all available information including prior knowledge; accurate comparisons; and sequential, step-by-step analysis and construction. (Whimbey, 1975, p.120)

How might a car repairperson show analytic thinking?

Analytic knowledge is the main type of knowledge required for schoolwork. However, it is also required outside of school, any time a person must solve problems involving a physical or natural system. For example, a good car repairperson must be able to analyze the difficulties of a car brought in for repair. He or she must understand how the components of the system function and work together. Experts in every field of endeavor use analytic intelligence like this. Something very similar was described at the end of Chapter 6 (Memory) as a characteristic of people with exceptionally good memories. They pay close attention to the "inner details of a situation."

There is, however, another type of intelligence. Some people go for the overall idea or the "big picture" and seem less attentive to details. Holistic abilities are said to be used for art, music, religion, intuition, and a host of other good things. The word holism comes from the Indo-European word kailo, which means whole, intact, or uninjured. A holistic person does not tear things apart mentally, to understand them. The holistic person tends to approach a subject by trying to understand its gist or general meaning.

How does holistic thinking contrast with analytic thinking?

Holistic people often excel in social situations requiring sensitivity, intuition and tact. Their ability to get a general feeling about a situation may open their minds to subtle nuances of complex situations. Using computer jargon, a holistic person might be regarded as a parallel processor. That would be the case if a correct response evolves out of widespread simultaneous activity instead of resulting from a controlled, step by step process.

Why does analytic thinking predominate in schools?

Analytic thought predominates in schools not because it is better in all situations but because it can be taught and because it is needed for many technical skills. Indeed, it must be learned through some kind of instructional process. Intuition, by contrast, seems to come naturally to many people with no special training. As a rule, if you want to get better at analytic thinking, you have to get an education of some sort. You have to serve as an apprentice to a master, or do a lot of reading, or attend a school.

Perhaps holistic thinking skills can be taught, also. Many popular psychology books claim to enhance creativity or intuition. However, nothing like intuition training has become standard in public schools, and researchers have not produced strong evidence that creativity or intuition can be improved by training.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey