Thinking and Thought Processes



This category of study in psychology is also often called cognition, one of the three founding areas of study in psychology (along with conation and affect). 

Historically the study of cognition has been present along with conation (now called motivation) and affect (emotions) in a psycho-legal concept called the trilogy of mind forming the basis of personhood.

A person is someone who is recognized by the law as a moral agent with rights and responsibilities (like drinking and voting).   (Unlike Skinner's behavioural machine).

Forensic psychology often deals with the person as part of the assessment of  individuals and their fitness to stand trial or their guilt or innocence contingent on being a fully functioning person at the time of the crime.




Much of what we do in everyday life as well as in science is to classify or categorize the world into natural and meaningful kinds, both to understand and predict the world, but also to communicate meaningfully with others.

Categories involve collections of objects (people, places, things) or events that most people of a given culture (or linguistic group) agree belong together.

Defining Category Membership

In trying to understand scientific and everyday concepts and categories several approaches  have been taken.

Traditionally logical positivism has attempted to identify concepts and categories by breaking them down to their elements (like Locke's elements of the mind). Here the assumption is that if we know the set ofdistinctive features we will know the class or category.

Defining features approach states that a set of features (characteristics) are present in every member that define each category. See figure 8.4

However it can be concluded that 'natural kinds' or categories often have members with some but not all of the defining features of the class or category, rather that there are fuzzy boundaries around class membership.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, alternatively has suggested that concepts and category members share family resemblance.

Family Resemblance refers to the property of category members to vary from each other, but still share a subset of the total set of features in of the 'family' of members that make up the category.

E.g. figure 2.

Do people store prototypes?

When people think about categories, how do they think about them? With prototypes? exemplars or sets of features?

A prototype is a member of a category that 'best represents that class.

E.g. when asked to imagine or draw a bird, what do you see?

It seem that we do store single prototypes or sets of exemplars from which the prototype is derived. E.g. Figure 8.6

Hierarchical structure of categories

Rosch & Mervis (1975) examined categories of thought and the relationships among them. The suggest that there are basic-level categories that most efficiently provide useful and predictive information about kinds or types. These are related to higher and lower categories of features or characteristics.

                     Basic-level                                Top-level                                    Lowest-level

                     Categories                               (Superordinate)                           (Subordinate)

                                                                        Categories                                    Categories

                    Chair                                              Furniture                                       Rocking Chair

                    Fish                                                Animal                                           Trout

                    Tree                                                Plant                                             Oak Tree

                    Train                                               Vehicle                                          Freight Train


Semantic Networks - Work on memory and cognition has also suggested that we can Prime individuals to think about certain features or categories through the spreading activation of cognitive "nodes."



Solving Problems

Problems that we face in life can be clear and bounded or 'well-defined' or they can be more general and open as 'ill-defined.'

The IDEAL problem solver

 Bransford & Stein (1993) have suggested that there are ideal qualities for solving problems. IDEAL is an anagram that stands for this ideal set of skills.

Identify the problem - recognise that there is a problem that needs fixing

Define or represent the information clearly and efficiently

Explore a variety of problem strategies or 'rules of thumb'

Act on the strategy selected

Look back and evaluate the efficacy of your solution, maybe start over.


Identifying and defining : Problem representation

Problem Representation involves: understanding the problem from the start to the goal, their relationship as well as the kinds of actions to be taken to get there from here.  Sometimes barriers arise.

Functional Fixedness is a barrier to problem solving where we tend to get locked into the uses and functions of objects, failing to see their other possible creative uses. E.g. Maier Two String F8.8 and Duncker Candle Mount F8.9 problems

 Part of the problem often involves getting stuck in a mind set.

Mental sets are well-established habits of perception and thought used to solve problems.


When new problems cant be solved using old strategies
> Failure
lCan be reduced by taking a break from the problem (incubation).

Exploring and acting: Problem Strategies


When facing  problem strategies there are two classes to consider algorithms and heuristics.
lAlgorithms are step-by-step rules or procedures that guarantee a solution
lHeuristics are problem solving "rules of thumb"
Shortcuts that are efficient, but don't guarantee solution

Looking back and Learning: Review or Revise

As the final step in IDEAL review your solution and either feel good about your success or revise your strategy for a better solution.


Making Decisions

Decision making involves thought processes used in evaluating and selecting from a set of alternatives, often involving risk.

Framing of Decision Alternatives


Decision making usually includes Framing which involves the way the alternatives are structured
lE.g. Is a possible course of action framed as a way to ensure a gain, or to avoid a loss? If you can, would you save 2/3 or the people or risk losing 33% ?

lPeople tend to avoid risks when gain is emphasized, take risks when loss is emphasized. Framing can lead to choices that are irrational from a statistical viewpoint   lE.g. Doctors are more likely to choose a risky treatment when they see it as preventing death as opposed to extending life.

Tversky & Kahneman (1987) gave options: A- 200 people will be saved, B-1/3 chance 600 saved and 2/3 chance no one saved.

Alternatively given C- 400 will die and D- 1/3 chance that nobody will die and 2/3 chance that 600 will die.

 Found people choose A over B and D over C.


Confirmation Bias and Illusory Correlations


The Confirmation Bias involves a tendency to seek out and use information that supports and confirms a prior decisions or beliefs.
lPeople avoid seeking out information that might contradict a prior belief - we are conservative in thinking. (see cognitive dissonance below)

Illusory Correlation involves  the perception of a relationship between variables (e.g., handwriting and personality) that does not really exist.


Decision-Making Heuristics
We tend to rely upon "rules of thumb" or heuristics to make decision making easier.


Representativeness Heuristic occurs when judging the likelihood of something (an object) falling into a class, compare the similarity of that item with the average member of that class  (prejudice).
lE.g. Which is probably a random series of coin flips,
lBoth are equally likely, but one is more representative!

The Availability Heuristic involves the tendency to base estimates of frequency or probability on the ease with which examples come to mind (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973).
lE.g. If you have just heard about a plane crash, your estimate of the likelihood of plane crashes may increase because the recent plane crash easily comes to mind.




The Value of Heuristics

Research on heuristics highlights how imperfect we are at decision making
lHowever: Research focuses on special situations where heuristics contradict optimal, statistically based reasoning.

lMost of the time, they are effective shortcuts
Good things about heuristics:
lOften do produce good decisions in real life
lSave time and effort over optimal reasoning strategies
lOften, we dont have the statistical information for optimal reasoning anyway


 Other biases are examined around social cognition and personality, such as Phil Zimbardo's Time Paradox, see 100B activities.



 Looking ahead to the next course in psychology with
Social Psychology and Social Cognition
(Chapter 16)

Attitudes and their social origins

Attitudes are relatively stable opinions that we have which are comprised of both cognitive and emotional components.

Vary in strength and flexibility of conviction and arise through social means such as cohort effects where a generational identity emerges: boomers, gen-X or gen-Y

Attitudes often influence behaviour, more often behaviour influences attitudes.

Cognitive Dissonance is said to occur when two contradictory attitudes are being held at the same time, or when behaviour and attitudes diverge. Thought that people are motivated to reduce dissonance.



Social Cognition
Social Cognition - examines the effect of social situations or influences on thought, memory & perception.

Attribution Theory - involves understanding the ways in which motivation can alter our perceptions of responsibility for ourselves and others.

Kelly's Attribution Model

Three characteristics lead to personal or situational attributions


Consensus Distinctiveness  Consistency  Outcome 
Low - other people don't Low - P does same as others High - P always does  this Personal Attribution 
High - other people do High - P does not do as others Low - P doesn't always do this Situational Attribution 


Attributions are the implicit or explicit statements about causality and the source of human action or responsibility.

Situational attributions occur when one identifies some environmental factor as the cause of action or behaviour.

Dispositional attributions are made when one's actions are deemed to be the direct result of a personal trait or motive.

Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when one tends to overestimate the dispositional factors and underestimate the situational factors when explaining someone else's behaviour.

Across cultures - Americans make more personal attributions while Indians make more situational attributions.

Self-Serving Bias occurs when one explains one's own failures to the situation and successes to one's own personal characteristics.

-Both tend to be more prevalent in 'western' countries

Just-World Hypothesis occurs when one believes that the world is a fair and just place and that people get what they deserve. >Victim blame.