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  • Kathryn Ambroze

Brainstorming: The Evolution of Thought Theories

Various types of mental frameworks have been developed in attempts to conceptualize the mind and the way we, as humans, think. Classifying the mind, perception and rationality is intended to aid in the explanation of consumer decision-making. This attempt to clarify conscious versus subconscious behavior, motivation and anticipation has inspired numerous researchers to form creative ideas about how the mind works. While applications of decision-making research are infiltrating new fields constantly, the foundational philosophies have supported it for decades. Deliberate and intuitive thinking are approached in various ways. Below is a highlight reel of important theorists who impacted the trajectory of classified thinking. Many theorists are not included in this condensed summary; however, it is important to note at least some of the vast research dedicated to the mysterious theories of the mind.

The Head and the Heart:

It seems fitting to start with one of the most famous founding fathers of psychoanalysis, Freud. Sigmund Freud introduced a tripartite model of the psyche: id, ego and superego (Freud, 1923). The id is defined as the unconscious, instinctual and primitive aspect of the mind. The superego involves moral consciousness instilled from a parent or authoritative figure during development. The ego mediates between the id and superego as a conscious force through reason. Freud was one of the few psychoanalysts who introduced the idea that behavior is a result of both implicit and explicit factors. Freud’s attempt at explaining the mental life set a foundation for many theorists to follow. Researchers such as Nisbett and Wilson (1944), Stanovich (2004), Wason and Evans (1975), and Wilson and Dunn (2004) all agree with the idea that unconscious processes control behavior without our awareness. Other psychologists, such as Bargh and Ferguson (2000), further believe that the subconscious can even act deliberately. Discussions about thinking can easily turn to a question of ethics, which it often does. Conversations about free will and predetermined destiny are very much a part of the dialogue. It is the relationship and influence of implicit and explicit responses, or dual-processing thinking, that sparks such commentaries and questions that remain consistently at the forefront of our curiosity.

Each dual-processing theory involves both rule-based processing and associative processing. Rule-based processing is conscious, explicit, motivated behavior, while associative processing is a learned behavior that occurs automatically. Theories springboard from rule-based and associative processing into unique interpretations about how each component, either independently or simultaneously, influence behavior (Smith & DeCoster, 2000).

Kahneman and Frederick (2002) discuss how implicit and explicit modes of thinking operate in conjunction with one another within their literature review. The discussion analyzes how terms have varied over time with ultimately the same meaning behind the new phrases (Kahneman & Frederick, 2002). There are so many synonyms associated with dual systems of thinking (see Table 1a and 1b) that information becomes unclear. Although it can be challenging at times, it is important to not be bogged down by the synonyms for rule-based processing and associative processing. Ultimately, the vast literature is trying to find the right terms to be able to convey an abstract concept into an educational message. The public became much more familiar with the dual system thinking through Daniel Kahneman’s novel, Thinking Fast and Slow which helped unify the terminology. System 1 is defined as the unconscious or instinctive reaction, while System 2 is considered a slower, more rational or deliberative way to comprehend ideas or stimuli (Kahneman, 2011). An honest attempt to keep thinking about thinking simple.

Tables 1a and 1b: Taken from Evans (2008), lists various dual-processing synonyms commonly used within the literature (1a). 1b includes attributes of dual systems of thinking, categorized into clusters.

The irony in problem-solving how we, as humans, problem-solve pushes research to further the conversation and provoke challenging discussions. Petty and Cacioppo (1986) developed a dual-processing theory model to explain how a resulting attitude varies based on the way information is processed. The effectiveness of a message and its various apparatuses to persuade one towards a certain behavior is not only the focus of Petty and Cacioppo’s work, but the overall objective of marketing. Many researchers, including Petty and Cacioppo, worked to understand how different approaches warrant various responses. Fazio (1986) also contributes to this dialog by proposing that attitudes drive behavior via associations given to objects, except when there is deliberate motivation to bring an awareness to one’s attitude.

Attitudes and biases that effect how consumers act are often connected to dual-processing theories. Other runoffs of dual processing include the study of implicit or explicit bias in stereotypes by Devine (1989). By studying the relationship between stereotypes and prejudices, Devine (1989) concludes that implicit responses may be independent of personal explicit impressions. A lot of social science work involves observing how we as humans react through our conscious bias.

While these contributions are helpful, any dual-processing theory is subject to critics and rebuttals which help to inspire innovative ideas. Evans (2008) summarizes not only the different labels and attributes of numerous dual-process theories in literature, but also reminds readers that there is no strong evidence to support two thinking styles—it is just a way to empirically classify abstract ideas. Evans also argues that assuming every single component of thinking fits under one of two umbrellas may be faulty (Evans & Stanovich, 2013). Keeping a fresh perspective can be challenging since it is easy to get confused by the complexities of this type of research; however, Freud did not solely inspire the mass contributions to the formation of process thinking. As we continue to skim the surface of thought theories, there are a few other notable philosophers to address.

Responses: Automatic or Conditioned

Shifting the perspective to the origins of stimulus-response relationships brings us to Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov is known for his classical conditioning experiments where dogs were given food by experimenters in white coats. The dogs eventually developed an association between white coats and food, thus, were excited to see an experimenter in anticipation of the food (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013). Classical condition experiments have been replicated and applied to various environments and subjects, as you can see in Figure 1. The free learning model inspired one of the two components utilized in Pezzulo and Rigoli’s 2011 decision-science study. Pezzulo and Rigoli (2011) analyzed conditioned participants responses to a stimulus with the addition of having the participants consider the implications of the action. Three simulations included various choices that led to different motivating implications. Think about if a friend offers you food when you are famished compared to when you just ate a meal. Depending on your level of hunger, your response may vary. Moreover, Pezzulo and Rigoli’s work also intertwines the analysis of positive and negative projections (aka anticipation or dread). The study concluded that considering the overall objective rather than one’s current state leads to a higher reward since the future internal states are given values, thus influencing a decision. So, the anticipation could be the difference between that glorious first bite of a meal while your stomach is growling or feeling as if you are about to roll out the door from overeating. How you predict the food will make you feel will play a part in deciding if you will accept or decline your friend’s offer.

Figure 1: To provide another example of classical conditioning, (1) demonstrates a dog drooling in the presence of food and (2) not drooling at the sound of a bell. However, by ringing the bell when food arrives (3), the dog creates an association where hearing the bell=in the presence of food= drooling. Therefore, if the dog hears the bell and assumes food is coming, the dog will start to salivate—even if there is no food (4).

Rescorla-Wagner’s model also branches off the work of Pavlovian conditioning in a different direction by analyzing motivation and reward based on anticipation of an unconditioned stimulus. According to Rescorla and Wagner, if something exceeds your expectations, the causal connection is strengthened. Contrastingly, if you are anticipating something and are let down, the connection is weakened, and in turn, you will try to avoid it in the future (Siegel & Allan, 1996). By anticipating an exhilarating feeling, chances of being disappointed increase (van Dijk, Zeelenberg, & van Der Pligt, 2003). Having this type of human response could be why so many critics were not impressed with the last Game of Thrones season. The hype from the previous episodes caused viewers to have extremely high standards that were not met, thus, causing people to react negatively. The model Siegel and Allan (1996) propose expands to various topics of human judgement, learning, perception and regulation. Reasoning is also discussed in this model to determine why a decision is made. It concludes that humans use transitive inference abilities when making decisions. So, when you are presented a situation repeatedly, you will be better equipped to determine how to respond. Critics are eagerly looking for loopholes (such as an unintended Starbucks cup cameo in a world of dragons), since the final season did not match the attention to detail as previous seasons. According to Siegel and Allan (1996), the Rescorla-Wagner model is a large part of the groundwork of basic learning processes research. We can thank the world in Winterfell for reminding us the cliché-but-true quote, “no expectations, no disappointments.”

Whether watching Game of Thrones or learning more about biometrics, advances in technology pushes content in research and entertainment. Kable and Glimcher (2007) examined aspects of decision-making science with the use of an fMRI to pinpoint certain brain regions that may be associated with reward. Their findings indicate that the ventral striatum, medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex all experience an increase in activity when a participant receives or expects a reward (Kable & Glimcher, 2007). While these findings are under certain assumptions due to the nature of fMRI, the research implies that the brain reacts to rewards when goal-oriented choices are decided. When deciding between choices, whether it be a second helping of mashed potatoes or marrying someone, it involves reflection on information and determining what response will have the most advantageous outcome. The expectation or delivery of a reward is a part of how we continuously strive for the best option.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

– William James