Cognitive Styles: Understanding Differences

Cognitive Styles. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Cognitive Styles. Psychology Fanatic
(Adobe Stock Images)

In the world of education and psychology, the concept of cognitive styles refers to the unique ways individuals perceive, process, and organize information. These styles can vary greatly from person to person, shaping how we learn, think, and solve problems. In a world of interpersonal communication, understanding the complexity of individual differences may help us navigate relationships more effectively.

The concept of cognitive styles drew significant psychological attention during the 1900’s. However, the psychological community could not agreed upon a finite definition of cognitive styles in general or of which categories should and should not belong to the growing proposed list of cognitive styles. Perhaps, this is because the extreme wide reaching range of the topic.

Key Definition:

Cognitive styles is a psychological concept referring to individuals preferred ways of processing information. Cognitive styles is a blend of cognitive abilities and personality.

Consider the variety of proposed personality types. One of the more compact lists of personality types is the Big Five, which separates personality traits based on five continuums. Just having five continuums to evaluate overall personality creates nearly countless combinations. Now take these countless personality styles and integrate them with cognitive abilities. The list grows exponentially large beyond workable and desirable analysis.

The scientific community choose to deal with this unworkable variance of cognitive styles by evaluating cognitive styles within different realms. For example, we may find inventory tests to evaluate different cognitive styles that lead to depression. A significant portion of cognitive style research is framed within the learning/teaching spectrum.

History of Cognitive Styles

Carl Jung provided much of the early philosophy on different cognitive styles. From his early observations of psychological types (1923), sprung the personality domain of psychology. Jung presented that personality types were characterized by “terms of two attitudes (extraversion and introversion), two perceptual functions (intuition and sensing), and two judgement functions (thinking and feeling)” (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 1997).

“But the complicated external conditions under which we live, as well as the presumably even more complex conditions of our individual psychic disposition, seldom permit a completely undisturbed flow of our psychic activity. Outer circumstances and inner disposition frequently favour the one mechanism, and restrict or hinder the other ; whereby a predominance of one mechanism naturally arises. If this condition becomes in any way chronic a type is produced, namely an habitual attitude, in which the one mechanism permanently dominates ; not, of course, that the other can ever be completely suppressed, inasmuch as it also is an integral factor in psychic activity” (1923).

Basically, we have inherent tendencies or sensitivities. In the course of interacting with our environment, because of our tendencies, we establish habitual patterns or styles of interaction. We refer to these patterns as a cognitive style. Or in Jung’s words, ‘psychological type.’ Others have referred to these individual differences as cognitive controls, cognitive attitudes, cognitive strategies, and as thinking styles.

A List of Cognitive Styles

An exhaustive list of cognitive styles is beyond the purpose of this article. I will list some of the more popular early styles proposed and then present some specialized styles.

Field Independence versus Field Independence

This style has notable research. Field dependence-independence was first introduced by Herman Witkin (1916-1979). He discovered a difference in subject’s perceptions of visual space. Basically, some individuals could perceive objects outside of the context while others could not. A person high in field independence seeks differentiated information while some one low in field independence fuses information with the surrounding context.

Research suggests that this traits extends beyond the visual sphere (Guilford, 1980). Individuals low in field independence have difficulty restructuring problems or using resources in unconventional ways.

Reflection versus Impulsivity

Some people are more reflective and others more impulsive. A reflective individual pauses before action, considering alternative possibilities, and potential hazardous. While on the other end of the spectrum, impulsive individuals may quickly jump into action without careful reflection. Both reflection and impulsivity have benefits and costs (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 1997).

I see great similarities to this polarity style with Jeffery Gray’s behavioral activation and behavioral inhibition systems. Basically, he proposes brain activity for reward and punishment differs between people through two differentiated and independent systems. A person with high sensitivity to punishment is likely to be more reflective, evaluating possibilities before action. While a person high in sensitivity to reward is more likely to leap at perceived opportunities without considering possible risks.

Other Types

  • Complexity vs. simplicity
  • Tolerance vs. intolerance
  • Constricted vs. flexible
  • Leveling vs. sharpening
  • Focused vs. scanning
  • Proactive vs. protective

Many of these categories overlap. For instance, proactive vs. protective is similar to reflective vs. impulsive. The research on cognitive styles is not universal. Any researcher can identify a continuum of individual differences, define it, and conduct a study. However, this doesn’t invalidate the research. Accordingly, one must carefully evaluate each study for its own merits and not compare studies for validity if they utilize different criteria to define core terms.

Learning Tendencies

One prominent theory of cognitive styles is the VARK model, developed by Neil Fleming. According to this model, there are four main learning modalities: Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic. Visual learners learn best through images, charts, and graphs; auditory learners prefer listening and discussing; reading/writing learners excel with text-based materials; and kinesthetic learners thrive on hands-on activities and movement.

Much of the research on cognitive styles in the learning domain casts a warning to teachers that tend to focus teaching and testing on a particular style that may alienate a percentage of the students. Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D. wrote that “when your profile of thinking styles is a good match to an environment, you thrive. When it is a bad match, you suffer” (1997). We would hate for the potential of a young child to be destroyed early just because their leaning style conflicts with the teacher’s teaching and testing style. An early mismatch can lead to a disasters Golem effect, following the child throughout his schooling. Eventually, the child buys into the negative evaluation of their self, and lives up to the low expectations.

This is a difficult task with the growing level of mandatory curriculum and standardized testing. However, we are sacrificing child curiosity and creativity in the balance.

Optimistic-Pessimistic Thinking Styles

Martin Seligman presented theories on cognitive thinking styles in regards to optimism. He referred to his version as explanatory style. he contends that we evaluate information on three continuums. He wrote that “there are three crucial dimensions to your explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization” (Seligman, 2011).

  • Permanence refers to the level of permanence we see in personal traits. “If you believe the cause of your mess is permanent—stupidity, lack of talent, ugliness—you will not act to change it” (2011).
  • Pervasiveness refers to how pervasive we perceive and event or behavior. When we see a flaw as something that contributes to all aspects of our lives, then our pervasive style of thinking greatly depresses our lives.
  • Personalization refers to attributing external events to personal flaws or causes.

Cognitive Styles and Psychotherapy

A common foundational theory in many psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, is that cognitive thinking styles contribute to, or even cause, psychopathologies. Consequently, therapists target cognitive thinking and emotional patterns, believed to be associated to the pathology. Through various techniques, practitioners hope to change invasive cognitive styles to thinking styles more amendable to psychological wellbeing.

A common technique is cognitive reappraisal. This method takes cognitions and reappraises hurtful or damaging conclusions by finding alternate meanings that soothe rather than provoke discomforting emotions.

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

Understanding cognitive styles can have significant implications for education and beyond. By recognizing and accommodating diverse learning styles, teachers can create inclusive environments that support the needs of all students. Similarly, in workplaces and teams, acknowledging and leveraging different thinking processes can enhance creativity, problem-solving, and cooperation.

It’s important to note that cognitive styles are not definitive labels, but rather a spectrum of preferences that individuals may exhibit across different situations. Furthermore, these preferences can evolve over time, influenced by experiences and personal development.

In conclusion, recognizing and embracing cognitive diversity is a fundamental aspect of fostering effective learning, problem-solving, and collaboration. By tailoring educational and professional experiences to accommodate various cognitive styles, we can create environments where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Join 50.2K other subscribers


Blackburn, I., Jones, S., & Lewin, R. (1986). Cognitive style in depression. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 25(4). DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.1986.tb00704.x

Guilford, J. (1980). Cognitive Styles: What Are They?. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 40(3), 715-735. DOI: 10.1177/001316448004000315

Hallahan, D. (1970). Cognitive Styles. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 3(1), 4-9. DOI: 10.1177/002221947000300101

Ho, S., & Kozhevnikov, M. (2023). Cognitive style and creativity: The role of education in shaping cognitive style profiles and creativity of adolescents. British Journal of Educational Psychology, EarlyView. DOI: 10.1111/bjep.12615

Jung, Carl (1923/2016). Psychological Types. Routledge; 1st edition.

Liedtke, J., & Fromhage, L. (2019). Modelling the evolution of cognitive styles. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 19(1), 1-10. DOI: 10.1186/s12862-019-1565-2

Seligman, Martin (2011). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage; Reprint edition.

Sternberg, Robert J. (1997). Thinking Styles. Cambridge University Press; First Edition.

Sternberg, R., & Grigorenko, E. (1997). Are Cognitive Styles Still in Style?. American Psychologist, 52(7), 700-712. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.52.7.700

Psychology Fanatic Book References:

Throughout the vast selection of articles found at Psychology Fanatic, you will find a host of book references. I proudly boast that these referenced books are not just quotes I found in other articles but are books that I have actually read. Please visit the Psychology Fanatic data base of books.

You May Also Enjoy:

Thinking Errors. A man with a quisical expression.

Thinking Errors

We engage in a variety of thinking errors in our pursuit of happiness. If we…
Read More
Skeptic or Cynic. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Skeptic or Cynic

Are you a skeptic or cynic? Skeptics are open to new knowledge while cynics are…
Read More
A young child's image with symbols flowing from the head, representing their explanatory style.

Explanatory Style

Explanatory style refers to our individual style of explaining experience. Our view of reality is…
Read More
Future Oriented Thinking. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Future Oriented Thinking

He surprisingly discovered the five-year old’s that waited—on average—performed better in college, relationships and careers….
Read More

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

Discover more from Psychology Fanatic

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading