June 18, 2013 | 3
Do you think like a polymath? Here’s a quick test:
Are you more of a rational or intuitive thinker?
According to psychologist Seymour Epstein’s cognitive-experiential self-theory, humans have two parallel but interacting modes of information processing. The rational system is analytic, logical, abstract, and requires justification via logic and evidence. In contrast, the experiential system is holistic, intuitive, affective, concrete, experienced passively, processes information automatically, and is self-evidently valid (experience alone is enough for belief).
According to Epstein,
“The two systems have unique disadvantages as well as advantages. Thus, the rational system, although superior to the experiential system in abstract thinking, is inferior in its ability to automatically and effortlessly direct everyday behavior, and the experiential system, although superior in directing everyday behavior is inferior in its ability to think abstractly, to comprehend cause-and-effect relations, to delay gratification, and to plan for the distant future. Since each system has equally important advantages and disadvantages, neither system can be considered superior to the other system.”
A large body of research by Epstein and other researchers supports the importance of harnessing both modes of thought for optimal intelligence, reasoning, creativity, and personal development. Consider a 2011 study conducted by Epstein and his colleague Paul Norris. They found that an experiential thinking style, but not a rational thinking style was positively associated with performance measures of divergent thinking, aesthetic judgment, sense of humor, and intuition ability, as well as self-report measures of empathy and social popularity. While a preference for rational thinking was associated with several measures of adjustment (including meaning in life and self-acceptance), rational and experiential thinking styles were both positively associated with personal growth. Interestingly, people’s reported thinking style preferences tended to agree with the observations of people who knew them well.
To see how each mode of thought comes with both advantages and disadvantages, here is a summary of a number of findings over the years showing both the positive and negative attributes associated with each thinking style:
What a terrific list of positive attributes to have! It would be nice to have all of the positive attributes, while minimizing the negative effects of each, no? As Epstein told me in personal communication,
“people who are high in both thinking style are Renaissance people. They have the brains of scientists and the sensibilities of poets. In other words they have the positive features of both thinking styles and do not have their negative features because they are kept under control by the other thinking style.”
Being open to both modes of thought isn’t just conducive to creativity, but also for facilitating harmonious social relationships. The experiential thinking style is related to lots of important elements of a positive relationship, such as empathy and agreeableness. However, what if you’re an experiential thinker but want to form a relationship with someone who is predominantly an analytical thinker? Or vice-versa, what if you’re a huge analytical thinker but wish to form a relationship with an experiential thinker? This isn’t purely theoretical. For instance, Norris and Epstein found that males, on average, use more of an analytical thinking style than females and females, on average, rely more on experiential thinking to make decisions than males. Of course there is much variation within each gender, but still these differences, on average, may lead to unnecessary miscommunication between the sexes.
If only everyone, regardless of gender, learned to harness and appreciate both forms of thinking, we could minimize instances where people seem to just be talking past each other. Many, many years of psychological research has shown quite convincingly (to me, at least) that each mode of thought is fundamentally different from the other and when we are in a particular mode of thought we actually perceive everything around us differently and use different information to make decisions. Those who are open to experiencing both analytical thought and experiential thought and are flexible enough to switch between the two depending on the task demands have the greatest chances of not only changing the world for the better, but also forming deep, empathic connections with others.
It’s not easy being a polymath these days. Knowledge is being generated and transmitted at light speed. The sheer quantity of knowledge required to become an expert in almost any domain is phenomenal, with barely any time left to master additional domains.
None of this means that you can’t think like a polymath though in whatever domain you want to master. The good news is that thinking styles are at least partially separate from cognitive abilities and talents, and correlate with important intellectual and creative outcomes. Harnessing more thinking styles only works to your advantage, as long as you have the good sense, flexibility, and openness to know when a particular thinking style is appropriate and when it is likely to get in your way.
So want to be a Renaissance person? First step: start thinking like one.
For more on the relationship between multiple modes of thought and creative achievement across the arts and sciences, check out my new book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Also, follow me on Twitter!
This post originally appeared at Psychology Today on June 11, 2011.