Hot Cognition

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The Psychological Concept of Hot Cognitions

Hot cognitions, also known as affect-laden cognitions or emotionally charged thoughts, play a significant role in behaviors and goal pursuit. Hot cognitive processes refer to motivations strongly influenced by emotions and profoundly impact on decision-making, perception, memory, and problem-solving abilities.

The concept of “hot cognition” was first presented by Robert Abelson (Abelson, 1963). The cognitive movement crowd did not readily accept the theory of hot and cold cognitions because of the strong association with emotions. During the time, psychology strongly emphasized cognitions over emotions. Perhaps, the cognitive movement was rebelling against the earlier behaviorism hold on psychology that rejected cognitions as a magical, unscientific approach to human behavior.

However, overtime the hot cognition theory stuck. One could surmise that this theory is the precursor of affective-neuroscience and the wave of other theories that include emotion as a primary force in human psychology. The concept of hot cognitions falls under a more general category of behavioral motivation.

Understanding Hot Cognitions

Hot cognitions refer to thoughts and mental representations that are infused with emotional significance. Unlike their counterpart, cold cognitions, which are neutral and devoid of emotional content, hot cognitions are driven by our feelings and can evoke powerful emotional reactions.

External stimuli provokes several internal processes, involving interpreting data from multiple senses, pulling from long-term memory, and integrating information with goal pursuit. However, this may be a long drawn out process, leading to delayed reaction to important stimuli. Some stimuli, associated with emotional charged memories, bypass regular cold, calculated cognitions and initiate biological process that change normal cognitive processing.

These emotionally charged thoughts can have a positive or negative valence, influencing our actions and shaping our experiences. For instance, when we encounter a situation that triggers fear, our hot cognitions may lead to a heightened sense of danger and cause us to react with increased anxiety or avoidance.

Key Definition:

Hot cognitions refer to thoughts and mental representations that carry significant emotional significance. These cognitive processes are characterized by their strong emotional impact on our behavior.

Science proposes that executive functioning spans across a number of cognitive tasks, including working memory, cognitive flexibility and reasoning in active goal pursuit. According to this theory, and later empirically supported by technological advances in brain imaging, hot and cool cognition implies that executive function operate differently in different contexts.

Hot and Cold Cognitions

We gain a clearer concept if hot cognitions when we understand the easily defined cold cognitions. Cold cognitions are “interpretations of facts, probabilistic judgements, evaluations of attributes, analogies, and so forth” (Simon, Stenstrom, & Read, 2015). Which is fine in theory but impractical. We all have emotional interference with clean, cold cognitions.

Dan Simon, Douglas Stenstrom, and Stephen Read explain “a well-established body of research shows that people ubiquitously react to stimuli with positive or negative valence and liking, easily develop motivation in forms of wishing for or working towards particular goals, and experience emotions towards actors in social situations. These reactions have traditionally been called ‘hot cognitions’” (2015).

While all our cognitions (cold and hot) our mixed, some have more emotional charging than others–they run hotter. The hotter the cognition, the more it changes the pattern of processing, relying on a faster system, and quicker reactions. In some instances, almost completely shutting down all the cold logical thought, in favor or quick reflexive reactions.

Basically, hot cognitions take priority over cold, logical processing of facts. Joseph LeDoux, American neuroscientist whose research is primarily focused on survival circuits, wrote that “there is but one mechanism of consciousness and it can be occupied by mundane facts or highly charged emotions. Emotions easily bump mundane events out of awareness, but non-emotional events (like thoughts) do not so easily displace emotions from the mental spotlight…”. He continues, “while conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional system to the cognitive system are stronger that connections from the cognitive system to the emotional system” (LeDoux, 2015. p. 19).

Hot Cognitions, Survival, and Learning

Emotionally significant stimuli takes priority. Our heightened arousal is the actual changing of biological systems to confront threatening circumstances or jump on passing opportunity. Success in the moment does not allow for sitting down and creating a flow chart of different options, identifying threats and listing opportunities. We must act before significant cognitions. The cognitions occurring during heightened biological arousal from emotionally charged stimuli is what we refer to as hot cognitions (or hot motivations).

Wilhelm Hoffman and Kathleen Vohs explain “the hot system is a ‘go’ system. It enables quick, emotional processing: simple and fast, and thus useful for survival from an evolutionary perspective by allowing rapid flight or fight reactions, as well as necessary appetitive approach responses. The hot system consists of relatively few representations, or hot spots (e.g., unconditioned stimuli), which elicit virtually reflexive avoidance and approach reactions when activated by trigger stimuli” Hoffman & Vohs, 2017, Kindle location: 2,695).

Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, provides an example of touching a hot burner and our immediate reflexive reaction to pull our finger back, before consciously feeling the pain. He explains that “the fast, thick, insulated (and hence costly) spinal cord neurons immediately instigate withdrawal from the painful stimulus, with no help from the conscious brain. The reflex is automatic, fast, costly in energy, and hidden from conscious awareness, but not flexible.” In contrast, he explains, “cognition is accurate, flexible, and energetically cheap, but slow. Sometimes we can afford the time, but in uncertain situations slow may be deadly” (Gazzaniga, 2018, pg. 129-130).

Role in Decision-Making

Hot cognitions exert a strong influence on our decision-making processes. Emotionally charged thoughts can override logical reasoning and lead us to make choices based purely on our feelings. For example, when faced with a tempting but unhealthy food option, our hot cognitions may prioritize immediate gratification over long-term health considerations.

Furthermore, hot cognitions can bias our judgment, coloring perceptions. Our emotional state and the salience of emotionally charged thoughts influence our interpretation of events, leading to cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, where we selectively perceive and recall information that aligns with our emotional beliefs.

Impact on Memory

Emotional experiences tend to be more memorable than neutral ones. Hot cognitions significantly influence the encoding and retrieval of memories. When events are emotionally arousing, our brains prioritize the processing of that information, leading to enhanced memory formation.

Nevertheless, the emotional valence of hot cognitions can also distort our memories. Negative emotions, for instance, can lead to memory biases such as the negativity bias, causing us to remember negative events more vividly than positive ones.

Implications for Therapy and Self-Reflection

Understanding hot cognitions is crucial in therapeutic settings. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) often focuses on identifying and challenging maladaptive hot cognitions that contribute to emotional distress and dysfunctional behaviors. By recognizing and reframing these negative thoughts, individuals can improve their emotional well-being and make healthier choices.

Jeremy D. Safran and Leslie S. Greenberg propose that “cognitive therapists should be particularly interested in their clients’ hot cognitions since problems which bring people into therapy rarely stem from cold cognitions, independent of affective processes” (1982). A key element of emotional based therapy is accessing these hot cognitions, bringing them to awareness of the clients, so the hot cognition can be addressed.

Moreover, hot cognitions can be used to cultivate positive emotions and enhance overall mental well-being. Practicing self-reflection and cultivating self-awareness helps individuals become more attuned to their hot cognitions, allowing them to identify and nurture positive thoughts and emotions.

Warm Cognitions

In dialectical behavior therapy, a key skill taught is acting from the wise mind. According to this therapy, there are three minds. the emotional mind, the rational mind, and the wise mind. The emotional mind refers to hot cognitions. The rational mind is the foundation of logical thought or cold cognition. And the wise mind is a healthy blend of the two.

REBT also refers to warm cognitions, blending of the cold and hot. Albert Ellis explains the differences, “thus, ‘This is a table’ is a cool cognition since it merely describes a table. ‘I like this table’ or ‘I dislike this table’ is a warm cognition. Finally, ‘This is the worst table that ever existed and I hope it blows up!’ or ‘This is the best table that ever existed and I can’t live without it!’ are hot cognitions” (Ellis, 2002, p. 133).

Richard M. Sorrentino and E. Tory Higgins take a different perspective on warm cognitions, suggesting all our cognitions are warm. They wrote, “it is not simply that cognition leads to motivation and motivation leads to cognition. Rather, each is a property or facet of the other. They are synergistic in that they operate together to produce combined effects.” They continue, “what we are saying, then, is that whatever determines behavior is neither hot nor cold — it is warm” (Sorrentino & Higgins, 1986, p. 8).

Hot Cognitions Continuum. Psychology Fanatic image.
Hot Cognitions Continuum. Psychology Fanatic.

Blending Hot and Cold Cognitions

The goal of therapy, or even personal development, is learning to identify and use hot and cold cognitions to our benefit. We need both and can integrate them in a productive life. Hot cognition is great when dodging a car speeding down the road. Perhaps, not so great when discussing the children with your wife.

Seymore Epstein wrote, “because sensitivities and compulsions are hot spots of destructive thinking, learning to recognize and interpret them can be helpful to you in understanding your own and other people’s destructive thinking and in improving your own constructive thinking” (Epstein, 1998 p. 91).

One way to integrate hot and cold cognitions is to use cool cognitions to prevent overloaded hot cognitions. Hoffman and Vohs wrote, “effortful control and willpower become possible to the extent that the cooling strategies generated by the cognitive cool system circumvent hot system activation through such intersystem connections that link hot spots to cool nodes.” This requires both mindfulness to recognize dangerous environments where hot cognitions may take over, motivating maladaptive behaviors and blinding defense mechanisms and a variety of practiced coping skills we can call on to cool the heating up of our cognitive processes.

Hoffman and Vohs explain, “with age and maturity, however, the cool system becomes elaborated as many more cool nodes develop and become connected to one another, thereby greatly increasing the network of cool system associations and thus the number of cool nodes corresponding to the hot spots” (2017, Kindle location: 2,722).

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

Hot cognitions are an essential concept in psychology, highlighting the powerful influence of emotions on our thoughts, decision-making, and memory. By understanding hot cognitions, we can gain insight into the complex interactions between our emotional experiences and cognitive processes. Recognizing the role of hot cognitions can empower us to make more informed choices, manage our emotions effectively, and foster positive mental well-being.

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Abelson Robert P. (1963) Computer Simulation of ‘Hot’ Cognition in Tomkins S., Messick S., eds., Computer Simulation of Personality. New York: Wiley.

Ellis, Albert (2002). Overcoming Resistance: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Integrated Approach. ‎ Springer Publishing Company; 2nd edition.

Epstein, Seymore (1998). Constructive Thinking: The Key to Emotional Intelligence. Kindle Edition.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. (2018). The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hoffman, Wilhelm; Vohs, Kathleen D. (2017). Desire and Self-Regulation. K. D. Vohs, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation: Third Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. The Guilford Press; Third edition.

LeDoux, Joseph (2015). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon & Schuster.

Safran, Jeremy; Greenberg, Leslie (1982). Eliciting “hot cognitions” in cognitive behaviour therapy: Rationale and procedural guidelines. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 23(2), 83-87. DOI: 10.1037/h0081247

Simon, Dan; Stenstrom, Douglas; Read, Stephen (2015). The Coherence Effect: Blending Cold and Hot Cognitions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 369-394. DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000029

Sorrentino, Richard M.; Higgins, E. Tory (1986). Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior. The Guilford Press; 1st edition.

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