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What are ways of thinking?

Motivations guide behavior in the world of things and people while ways of thinking guide behavior in the world of information. Ways of thinking or cognitive styles are individual ways of processing information independent of intelligence. Rather, they tell how individuals use their intelligence. As higher order knowledge structures they regulate planning and problem solving which is viewed along four consecutive steps each forming a competency itself.

Analysis - intuition as an example

After a shadowy period, researchers have shown renewed interest in ways of thinking, or cognitive styles in more technical terms (e.g., Kozhevnikov, 2007). In his bestselling book on "fast and slow " thinking, the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman (2011) has brought ways of thinking to the attention of the wider public. Researchers have so far identified a substantial number of distinct ways of thinking, from 19 (Messick, 1976) to no less than 30 (Riding and Cheema, 1991). Perhaps the most well-known of them is the analysis-intuition dimension, familiar from antiquity. The dimension is viewed by some researchers as the core structure around which other ways of thinking are clustered (Kahneman, 2011; Allinson & Hayes, 2012). The dual-process model of thinking serves as a basis for a whole theory of personality (Epstein, 2003).

The analytic end of the dimension is seen as an efficient way to think in structured and logically functioning environments while the emotion-based intuition end is viewed useful in unstructured, illogically or "whimsically" behaving environments. In a query of nine countries and a thousand respondents, intuition was seen most useful in strategic planning, HR development and marketing and least useful in materials management, production management and financing (Parikh et al., 1994).

A study on the test results of almost three thousand North American executives from private and public sector (Agor, 1989) showed that intuitive thinking varies according to management level, sex and occupational specialty. Intuition was favored most in the decision making of those on the highest executive level, by women leaders and those working in organizational development (compared to leaders working in financing). In the public sector area, intuition is pronounced among leaders in central government (compared to leaders in local government). Cumulative results from the widely used CSI test (Allinson & Hayes, 2012) show that the scores of people working for example in accounting and legal issues concentrate to the dimension's analytic end while creative occupations and entrepreneurs are clustered more toward the intuition end.

The last decade has evidenced several meta-analyses comparing analysis and intuition. Phillips et al. (2016) compared them as predictors of performance in different types of decision making tasks with normatively correct responses. Among all the task types, analysis attained small but significant correlation (.11), whereas intuition showed a negative relationship to decision performance. The task type had a strong impact on predictive power and in some theoretically matched tasks analytic thinking reached a .35 correlation. However, normatively correct decisions may be inappropriate as criteria for intuition. Alaybek et al.'s recent meta-analysis (2022) compares analytic and intuitive thinkers' predictive performance in a set of workplace tasks. Analysis beat (.21) intuition again (.05) while it yielded incremental validity beyond the trait of conscientiousness and general intelligence. The predictive power of both thinking styles increased along task complexity, creativity and worker age. Although ways of thinking are usually seen as independent of intelligence, another meta-analysis Alaybek et al. (2021) shows .27 correlation between analytical thinking and intelligence. The competence value of intuition remains truly enigmatic. Obviously, more appropriately matched criteria for intuition should be found, around creative activity.

Planning & problem solving as a competency

Overall, emphasis on analytic vs. intuitive thinking appears to direct individuals toward competence in different industrial sectors, jobs and educational fields. But instead of looking at one single way of thinking, much more nuanced and precised pictures of individuals are attained by looking at the issue from the opposite direction. Namely by starting from some performance entity at work and seeking for potential drivers amongst all the almost thirty different cognitive styles, ways of thinking.

A workable solution is to view planning and problem solving as a competency in itself. It is a competency which is today growing strongly in importance. The more "doing" becomes the responsibility of algorithms, robots and AI, the more important will planning and problem solving become. Namely, in order to answer the question HOW things could or should be done. In its top-10 list of most important skills for the year 2025, the World Economic Forum projects the first five to involve thinking, from analytic thinking to creativity (weforum, 2020).

Planning and problem solving can be unfolded into four steps each of which is driven by a distinct way of thinking and forming a distinct competency itself. People approach (a) plans and problems either by seeking for facts or new ideas. They perceive (b) them in a focused or broad manner, they produce (c) either standard or creative solutions which they implement (d) with caution or by taking risks. See figure below, the ways of thinking and the planning and problem solving steps.

Ways of thinking
The four-step division opens up a more differentiated, nuanced perspective on the individual's competencies and development options. An example is the situation where an individual wishes to develop his/her creativity while thinking that he/she needs stronger intuitive thinking to achieve that goal. However, the step-wise scrutiny might reveal that he/she actually practices extensive intuitive thinking (driver of creative solutions) but is lacking the ideas on which to build his/her creative solutions. The individual's strong fact-oriented approach style prevents from noticing new ideas. The person's real development goal is to change his/her approach to planning and problem solving and start looking for new ideas.

Another example is the classical case where a function leader has been promoted to group level based on his/her strong implementation record. His/her drive toward quick implementation leads to reiterating his/her manner of perceiving things in fast and focused way, leading to missing the big picture. Working on the the group level always requires strategic skills, the essential element in which is to perceive the world in a reasonably broad manner. Therefore, the person's true development challenge is to broaden his/her perception of things, begin to see the forest for the trees. The undersigned has recently published a blog on elements of strategic thinking or insight the first of which is reasonably broad perception and the second is about managing the balance of intuition and analysis, https://humansinstrategy.com/2023/11/07/elements-of-strategic-thinking-a-psychologists-perspective/

Existing vs. new processes

Each step in planning and problem solving promotes either implementation of current processes or creation of new processes. Emphasis on facts, focused perception and standard solutions capitalize on well-known and tried-out existing processes. New ideas, broad perceptions and creative, from the situation emerging solutions are about creating new processes.

The sum score on the WOPI Basic profile indicates whether the person tilts more toward implementation of existing processes (1-5) or creation of new processes (6-10). Individuals whose scores tilt toward implementing existing processes may be described as "Implementers" and those with a tilt toward creation of new processes may be described as "Innovators".

Planning and problem solving can viewed as a two-lane road with both lanes being equally valuable and needing each other. The road's destination point depends on the chosen lane and ability to change lanes when needed. The lane of existing processes leads to predictable although conservative destinations. The lane of new processes can take one to new and radically different destinations. The two lanes' competence value depends on the particular context: industry, organization or individual job. Eg., the primary emphasis in administrative and security work is on implementing existing, time-proven processes. Product development, strategy and marketing in turn crave for new processes: new ideas, broader perceptions and visions and creative solutions emerging from the unique situation.


According to Walter Isaacson, biografer of Franklin, Einstein and Steve Jobs, all three figures share a strong personality and a profound simultaneous interest in humanistic and natural sciences which is the key to building innovative economies of the present century (Isaacson, 2011). Well-known innovation figures attest to creativity generated from the coexistence of art and science. Also according to folk wisdom the condition of resourcefulness and creativity is the ability to think in different ways.

Psychoanalysts have come up with the concept of regression in the service of the ego (Kris, 1952) to describe highly creative artists' ability to regress or plunge from reality thinking (secondary processes) to primitive fantasy (primary processes) and thereof import ideas to their artistic work. The same ability to scan different information worlds is used as an explanation in studies of creativity and bipolar mood disorders (Johnson et al., 2012).

Bipolar thinking dimensions provide a meeting place for opposite information worlds which may very well be the core of creativity and innovation. While idea-oriented way of approaching things, broad manner of perceiving and intuitive thinking promote the emergence of new processes, the ultimate condition of creativity lies in the encounter of opposites in tension. In other words, creativity requires that flying ideas be tested against cold facts and broad, sky-high perceptions against the harsh, concrete reality and creative, odd solutions to rational standard solutions.

Developing planning and problem solving

Changing the ways of thinking is commonly viewed as a challenging task, although Rush and More (1991) showed that intuitive thinkers with the tendency of occasional "feet of the ground" thinking were successfully taught to break things into parts and restructure problems, the useful skill of analysts. Broadening one's ways of thinking is linked to the four planning and problem solving steps which are then examined either in individuals' everyday work processes or otherwise familiar contents. Understanding the four-step sequence can be enhanced by giving people the task to invent a new product from a piece of paper and then together look at the outcomes stepwise from approaching all the way to implementation.

Through broadening of one's ways of thinking everyone can strengthen his or her planning and problem solving skills either toward strengthening of existing processes or creation of new processes. Rehearsing the ways of thinking opposite to what one is accustomed to, is beneficial to everyone. That is, the fact-oriented individual begins to approach things by opening up new windows of ideas. The idea-oriented individual improves the quality of his/her ideas by testing them against facts, etc. In teams, creativity can be enhanced by pairing together individuals who think in different, even opposite ways, to work toward shared goals.

See Wikipedia: Cognitive styles

Agor, W. H. (Ed.). (1989). Intuition in organization. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Alaybek, B., Wang, Y., Reeshad, S., Dalal, R.S., Dubrow, S., Boemerman, L.S.G. (2021) . Meta-analytic relations between thinking styles and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences. Vol. 168,
Alaybek, B., Wang, Y., Dalal, R.S., Dubrow, S., Boemerman, L.S.G. (2022) . The Relations of reflective and intuitive thinking styles with task performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, Vol. 75, 2, 295-319.
Allinson, C. & Hayes, J. (2102). The Cognitive Style Index. Tech. manual and user guide. UK: Pearson Education.
Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Johnson, S.L., Murray, G., Fredrickson, B., Youngstrom, E.A., Hinshaw, S., Bass, J.M., Deckersbach, T., Schooler, J. and Salloum, I. (2012). Creativity and bipolar disorder: Touched by fire or burning with questions? Clinical Psychology Review, Feb; 32 (1): 1-12.
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Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Kozhevnikov, M. (2007). Cognitive styles in the context of modern psychology: Toward an integrated framework. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 464-481.
Kris, E. (1952). Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International University Press.
Messick, S. (1976). Personality consistencies in cognition and creativity. In S. Messick (Ed.), Individuality in learning (pp. 4-23). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Parikh, J. Neubauer, F. & Lank, A.G. (1994). Intuition: The New frontier in management. Oxford: Blackwell.
Phillips, W.J., Fletcher, J.M, Marks, A.D.G., Hine, D.W. (2016). Thinking styles and decision making: A Meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Mar; 142(3): 260-290.
Riding, R., & Cheema, I. (1991). Cognitive styles - An overview and integration. Educ. Psychology, 11, 193-216.
Rush, G.M. & Moore, D. M. (1991). Effect of restructuring training and cognitive style. Educ. Psychol., 11, 309-321.
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