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I. THE FieldW. Edgar Vinacke


II. Cognitive Organization AND ProcessesRobert B. Zajonc



Thinking is a subdivision within the broad psychological field that studies cognitive aspects of behavior. In a general sense, thinking pertains to the effects of certain kinds of prior experience upon the current activities of the person. Specifically, it is concerned on the one hand with the covert, symbolic processes that precede and/or accompany observable responses. On the other hand, it refers to a special kind of behavior itself, namely, that which occurs when previously learned responses are organized, or reorganized, in situations differing from the ones in which the original learning took place. We shall endeavor to treat thinking in these terms, although distinctions between the generally recognized categories of cognitive behavior are really a matter of emphasis, rather than of kind. Thus, perception stresses the immediate relations between stimuli and the person’s response, whereas thinking emphasizes some meditational process between previous learning and response patterns or response sequences. Learning focuses upon the acquisition of new responses—the changes that take place during exposure to particular kinds of situations, usually with the specification of meeting certain standards of performance. Thinking, in contrast, deals with the later effects of response acquisition, with special attention to the combination and recombination of responses. Memory has to do with the processes of storing and retrieving of learned responses, whereas thinking involves the utilization of the products of memory as the individual copes with internal needs and external environmental demands.

There is, then, no sharp and sustained distinction between the several categories of cognitive behavior, and, in fact, a considerable community of interest exists among psychologists who identify themselves with one or another of these subdivisions. The phenomena assigned to each category depend upon the sorts of questions a researcher asks and upon the kinds of data he wants to collect. Theoretical orientations provide still another means by which to distinguish subinterests within the domain of cognitive processes. We shall touch upon such matters below.

Special human characteristics . First, however, we must point out that thinking, in contrast to other aspects of cognitive behavior, is especially characteristic of human beings. While most psychologists familiar with recent experimental work would probably concede that at least some degree of all the behavioral characteristics of human beings occurs also in animals lower in the evolutionary scale, certain abilities are not only unusually highly developed in man but are also particularly apparent in those processes which we call thinking. These kinds of abilities include the ones described below.

Learning and memory. The human being can acquire great amounts of knowledge that can be stored over long periods of time. Thus, the potentiality of calling upon responses not immediately evoked by the present situation is a distinctive feature of thinking. In this sense it contrasts with all purely reflexive or situation-bound behavior.

Intrinsic symbolic activities. The experience stored in memory can be called upon in rapid and highly efficient fashion without the necessity of reproducing the complete gross motor or sensory responses that occurred during original learning. These implicit responses may continue indefinitely in innumerable combinations, thus permitting the traces of experience widely separated in time to influence the character of ongoing behavior. It also permits the individual to cope with a problem situation at a time long after it is overtly presented —the phenomenon of the delayed reaction, which is clearly very highly developed in human beings compared to lower animals.

Concept formation and conceptualization. An especially striking characteristic of symbolic processes is the ability to organize very many discrete impressions into inclusive systems called concepts; this ability is not confined to the packaging of information into fixed units, for the individual can, within wide limits, produce new and varied combinations of impressions as they are required. We need, then, to realize that thinking is not a matter alone of utilizing organizations of experience (concepts) but also of continuously organizing experience (conceptualizing) in relation to environmental objects.

Planning, foresight, and control. The foregoing special abilities make possible the establishment of systems by which extensive sequences of responses may be tied together and repeated. Psychological names for such mechanisms include attitudes and sets, values, superego and ego regulative processes, expectancies, cognitive styles, and associative tendencies. An exceedingly important aspect of cognitive control is the ability to anticipate future goals and contingencies by substituting symbolic representations for them. In this way, a person can take into account in the present something that is expected or hoped for in the future. Thus, thinking links the past and the future to the present by attitudinal processes.

Reasoning and imagination. In the tradition, thinking has been divided into the general categories of reasoning and imagination, with various subdivisions under each heading. Reasoning refers to planful, controlled symbolic processes related to goals and to the utilization of information in prescribed forms according to rules of procedure. Imagination refers to processes determined solely or mainly by intrinsic conditions and connotes the reoccurrence of past experience somewhat at random, or at least without regard to its accuracy, form, or direction. Deductive logic, inductive inference, and problem-solving activities are usually treated as varieties of reasoning. Fantasy and dreams are representative of imagination. It is not easy to place original or creative thinking in either category, since it partakes of reasoning by producing a tangible and orderly product but also resembles imagination because it calls in new and unexpected ways upon the combination of diverse past impressions in response to intrinsic motivational states.

Influence of psychoanalysis . The traditional distinctions have been greatly modified by the influence of psychoanalysis, which from the beginning has seen an intimate relation between organismic conditions and environmental demands. In perhaps oversimplified form we may say that Freud saw internal drives as influencing thinking through the pleasure principle (needs and wishes), whereas the environment imposes upon thinking the reality principle. In this manner he differentiated between primary-process and secondary-process thinking. Gardner Murphy (1947) has elaborated these ideas by suggesting that the onward course of thinking is a function of the interplay of autistic factors (roughly corresponding to primary-process thinking) and of realistic forces (corresponding to secondary-process thinking). Cognitive activity is really neither one nor the other but a resultant of both. It is simultaneously a response to intrinsic motivational states and to goal or stimulus conditions. However, the two kinds of forces are not always equal in strength but rather contribute in various proportions to cognitive activity, so that we may formulate a continuum of processes between autistic and realistic poles.

Attitudes and group problem solving. The modern treatment of thinking also places considerable emphasis upon the learning and operation of attitudes—corresponding in large degree to the Freudian concept of ego mechanisms—and to the central place that most behavioristic theories accord to the role of “steering” functions in the motivation system, as exemplified in concepts like “habit” and “expectation.” Finally, the past few decades have seen a rapidly mounting interest in group problem solving. Although we shall here omit this area, it must be regarded as an important subdivision within the general topic of thinking.


The broadly oriented student will find that he cannot become versed in the subject of human thinking without calling upon theory and research from all the social sciences as well as from physiological psychology. There really are no techniques that can properly be assigned specifically to the psychology of thinking in the way that tachisto-scopic procedures may be linked with the investigation of perception. Thus, research dealing with the cognitive behavior of children frequently demands the use of semiclinical interviews, like those so productively utilized by Jean Piaget. The examination of the role of the sociocultural context in shaping the character of experience must rely heavily upon cross-cultural methods. The investigation of attitudes and attitude change frequently requires the application of mass survey techniques. Efforts to discover the neural bases of thinking inevitably lead us to the electroencephalogram, the electrical stimulation of the brain, and the effects of drugs.

As in other aspects of experimental psychology, psychometric devices play a large part in facilitating investigation; for example, by providing objective definitions of personality variables, by yielding systematic measures of cognitive performance, and by equating groups of subjects. An excellent illustration is the increasing use of projective tests to assess latent motivational influences in thinking.

Nevertheless, the major research on thinking falls within the experimental tradition of psychology. It is a laboratory discipline, adapting to the special kinds of problems described above all the techniques of inductive verification of hypotheses, the manipulation and control of variables, quantitative analysis, and statistical inference. Most psychologists would maintain that the delay in scientific study of thought processes is more a function of the special difficulties that arise in systematic measurement and observation than in the inherent characteristics of the processes themselves.

Historical development

If we look within the general science of psychology, which became established after the middle of the last century, we can formulate three loosely defined stages in the systematic study of thought processes.

Descriptive phase . At the outset there was an intensive effort to identify the essential characteristics of thinking, building upon the classical categories proposed in Greek philosophy and the logical analyses in which British associationism became so sophisticated. Chiefly instrumental at this stage was the movement called “structuralism,” which was founded in Germany by Wilhelm Wundt and transplanted to the United States by Edward B. Titchener of Cornell University. In fact, these psychologists saw the central problem of psychology to be the investigation of conscious mental activities (really including all of the processes which we would now include under the heading of “thinking”). The acquisition of experience, its reappearance as intrinsic activities in various forms and combinations, the effect of environmental stimulation via the phenomenon of attention, distinctions between imaginative and realistic (or logical) mental events —these matters constituted the core of their interests. In keeping with the science of that period, these psychologists sought to identify the basic “elements” of mental activity and to this end proposed sensations, images, and feelings. Thinking was conceived to be primarily a matter of the occurrence of images (the traces of prior experience) and their translation into ideas. It followed from the theories of this school of psychology that one must examine the postulated elements and their interrelations; since the elements are intrinsic, one must look at them inside, so to speak, the boundaries of consciousness. As a consequence the distinctive method of psychology became introspection, the careful, controlled, precisely reported scrutiny of the expert psychologist’s own mental events.

Another influential description of thought was contributed by William James, who wrote aptly about the “stream of thought.” In this doctrine he emphasized the continuous, organized, and dynamic properties of thinking.

Francis Galton added another descriptive dimension in his studies of imagery. By means of questionnaires and interviews he sought to determine individual differences in the incidence and patterning of imagery, in the changes that occur with age, and the like.

The final episode in this early descriptive stage came with the “imageless thought” controversy, associated with the Würzburg School of Oswald Külpe, N. Ach, and others, as well as with names like Robert S. Woodworth and Alfred Binet. These investigators pointed out that cognitive processes may occur in which no evidence of imagery could be secured, for example, in rapid mental arithmetic. Rather, there seemed to be some other efficient mechanism which, once established, served to evoke directly a sequence of cognitive events. Such “determining tendencies” or “sets” were themselves regarded as significant properties of thinking. At the least they had to be included as an additional component of cognition, and at the most they cast basic doubt on the whole concept of a few basic elements. Since that time, sets and attitudes have played an increasing part in the account of thinking.

The end of structuralism was further hastened both by the advocacy of new (and perhaps better) behavioral units, such as stimulus-response bonds, and by an attack against the invocation of units of any kind launched by gestalt psychologists like Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, Kurt Koffka, and Kurt Lewin. From a methodological standpoint, exclusive reliance upon introspection drastically receded when the behaviorist John B. Watson and his successors rejected the notion of consciousness as the proper subject matter of psychology, insisting upon the objective definition of variables, the requirement that observation be confined to observable, overt response, and the necessity to emulate the replicability of experiments of the physical sciences.

Laboratory survey of phenomena . Although the study of thinking has not had nearly as intensive an emphasis (at least in America) as intelligence, learning, and perception—for reasons which are interesting but beyond the scope of this article— nevertheless, throughout the first half of this century there was a steady flow of empirical research dealing with thinking. The salient characteristic of this work has been a sort of one-shot effort to explore phenomena displayed in some relatively circumscribed experimental situation. A good number of these experiments have been influenced by developmsnts in learning theory, intelligence testing, or other aspects of psychology, and many of the concepts frequently employed to describe thought processes have been imported from these areas; an example is “trial-and-error” behavior in problem solving.

The dominant theoretical ideas have come from the dynamic emphasis of American functionalism, the reliance upon situational variables typical of behaviorism, and the organizational principles central to gestalt psychology. Two classes of phenomena have received the most attention, namely, concept formation and problem solving. It is noteworthy that both autistic and creative processes have been infrequent subjects of experimental investigation. It is true that a large body of information has accumulated about behavior in projective-test situations, but the practical clinical applications have vastly overshadowed possible implications for an understanding of thinking itself.

With regard to concept formation, the stage was set by Clark Hull’s monograph, published in 1920, and by Piaget’s observations of children a few years later. The traditions thus founded have led to a compendium of facts concerning classification and naming behavior, together with a listing of the conditions which influence the efficiency of or changes in this behavior. Virtually all of the experiments have employed one of two basic procedures. In one, subjects have been exposed to a series of stimulus objects with varying properties, with instructions to learn the basis on which groups of those objects can be correctly named. This might be termed an inductive procedure. In the other, subjects have been presented with an array of stimulus objects and asked to sort them into meaningful classes—a procedure with a more deductive character. (Of course, in practice it is quite difficult to preserve the distinction between induction and deduction because subjects readily shift from one approach to the other.)

By these means many phenomena have been reported, but, in general, they point to the fact that concepts are most easily evolved when the stimuli are simple, clearly defined, concrete, and free from competing cues. The work of Piaget and other child psychologists has strikingly revealed the progression from egocentric and prelogical conceptualization during early childhood to the more objective, logical, consistent, and systematic formulations of the adult. The work of L. S. Vigotsky, Kurt Goldstein, and others has helped to clarify differences between concrete and abstract conceptual behavior. In practically all of this research emphasis has been placed upon the objective, or extensional, aspects of concept formation rather than upon idiosyncratic, personal, or intensional aspects.

In the investigation of problem solving, subjects are typically presented with a task which requires the unraveling, as it were, of complex steps to a goal or the organization of available resources (materials for construction, verbal responses, general knowledge, etc.) to discover the correct solution. Popular tasks include mazes, mechanical and arithmetical puzzles, anagrams and word building, and construction problems. A considerable contribution comes from animal experiments, such as Edward L. Thorndike’s studies using problem boxes and Wolfgang Kohler’s studies of the use of implements by chimpanzees (1917). Other pioneer investigators have been Karl Duncker, Max Wertheimer, Otto Selz, F. C. Bartlett, George Katona, and Norman R. F. Maier. For many years, too, notable contributions emerged from the laboratory at Columbia University under the encouraging influence of Robert S. Woodworth.

All of this research has revealed a wide variety of phenomena, including the manipulative and exploratory characteristics of trial-and-error behavior in tasks such as maze learning, in which the subject must work out a definite but unpredictable sequence of steps to the goal, and the “recentering” (or reorganizing) behavior that follows an understanding of the requirements for attaining a solution, such as in “insight” problems. Other points receiving attention are the formulation and use of hypotheses, the operation of sets (or “direction”), and the transfer of principles discovered in one task to other problems.

Systematic investigation based on theory . The period of sheer phenomenon collecting appears virtually to have ended. Instead, we see now a general attempt to bring the study of thinking into line with other aspects of cognitive behavior. The sophisticated laboratory techniques and hypothesis testing characteristic of research in perception and learning are coming, therefore, to be applied to problem solving and concept formation with, as usual, research in imagination and creative thinking lagging behind. It is very likely that the second half of this century will bring quite a new look to our understanding of human thinking. If this perspective is correct, investigators will derive hypotheses from the viable theories of the day and test them in elaborately planned experiments, skillfully building experimental manipulations and controls into them. This strategy is already clearly evident in the investigation of concept formation. It is too early to cite with confidence the names of psychologists to whom the history of this trend will be indebted. Very influential, however, are those individuals, like O. Hobart Mowrer and Ernest R. Hilgard, who are seeking to integrate principles from the various theories of learning and to develop implications for complex aspects of human cognitive processes. On the other hand, students of personality, who take their departure from psychoanalytic, organismic, and Jungian theory and who inevitably locate thinking at a central position in their treatment of behavior, are certain to be equally influential.

Current trends

Following World War n there has been far greater interest in human thought processes than at any other period since the dominance of structuralism. With respect to both theory and experiment, a wide diversity of treatment is apparent. Future historians of the subject may well judge that the several basic fields of psychology have rapidly begun to converge on the investigation of thinking. Perhaps it is not too rash to suggest that symbolic aspects of behavior have once more moved toward the center of the psychological stage. In so brief a survey of these problems we cannot, of course, do more than hint at these developments. Physiological psychology has increasingly moved beyond peripheral and autonomic reactions toward subcortical and cortical functions. In developmental psychology the study of growth, maturation, and intelligence has receded in favor of more attention to concept formation, the establishment of attitudes, and the effects of socialization upon the context of experience. Cognitive theory and conditions of social interaction have played a steadily greater role in the advance of personality-social psychology. Clinical psychologists continue to search actively in many directions for an understanding of the cognitive processes that can account for symptom formation, therapeutic effects, and client-counselor relationships. Educational psychologists are paying steadily more effective attention to the pupil as a problem solver, to the classroom as a medium for the establishment of concepts and attitudes, and to creative thinking. Finally, the loosely defined field of general experimental psychology itself has tried to adapt the techniques painstakingly evolved in the investigation of perception and learning to problem solving, conceptualizing, and even imaginative behavior.

We can perhaps identify briefly six major trends.

Complex learning . The neobehaviorist tradition has sought to extend principles developed in the study of conditioning, verbal rote learning (memorizing), and discrimination learning to the wider area of problem solving. In this respect thinking represents an application in new or modified forms of previously acquired responses, and the solution or outcome of the elaborate sequence of activities evoked thus becomes a part of the subject’s response repertory (hence, the phrase “complex learning”). As we have mentioned above, a very active phase of this development has to do with naming and classifying behavior (”concept formation”). Especially significant has been the formulating of broad organizing procedures, or strategies, manifested by the subject. For instance, he may focus upon the successive instances in a series of stimulus objects, or he may look for ways to fit new instances into a general classification.

Numerous investigators are pursuing the stimulus, situational, and personality conditions that influence the adoption of such strategies and that determine the efficiency with which solutions to concept problems are attained.

Factor analysis . The attempt to discover the fundamental categories of human cognitive processes has a long history. A modern approach is the sorting out of correlations among performances in wide varieties of tasks and the subsequent derivation of general factors that account for the common denominators among them. This procedure is especially familiar in the systematic development of intelligence tests. This approach has been applied to a much wider range of behavior than that usually encompassed by tests. Although Charles E. Spearman, L. L. Thurstone, and Raymond B. Cattell have all contributed notably to this method, Joy P. Guilford has been especially influential in its application to thinking. His “model of intellect” is an effort to organize those aspects of cognition, which he calls “operations,” “products,” and “contents,” into a comprehensive system. What effect his theory may have upon research cannot yet be predicted, apart from its contribution to the objective measurement of many sorts of human abilities otherwise insufficiently represented by tests. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that factor analytic studies will continue to be an active part of the psychology of thinking. [See Factor Analysis, article on psychological Applications.]

Mediation theory . Recognition that the simple S-R model of behavior is inadequate to account for the more complex aspects of human behavior, especially in thinking, has led to a determined assault on the description of inferred processes that intervene between stimulus and response. The theory of “implicit speech” stated by the behaviorist John B. Watson has been further developed for this purpose in combination with the investigation of the role of language in determining the character and course of thinking. There are now many psychologists who concern themselves with the hypothesis that words act as responses to mediate between stimulus and response and that trains of words constitute much (if not all) of thinking. Research in this approach focuses both upon the properties of emitted words themselves and upon their inferred implicit organization and operation (attitudinal and conceptual mechanisms).

Information theory . The development of electronic computers has stimulated a great deal of interest in their possible analogy to human thinking. Since it has become increasingly evident that computers can be made to perform complex operations involving processes similar to those inferred to characterize the brain, it is natural to scrutinize these operations for clues to the basic properties of thought processes. Thus, the information storage system of the computer resembles “memory,” the rules and procedures of a program have affin-ites with regulating and conceptualizing functions, and feedback devices are not unlike the intrinsic self-propagating circuits of the brain. Most advocates of the computer model of thinking are understandably cautious about equating it with human cognitive processes, preferring to search for parallels between two different kinds of information-processing systems. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that the investigation of computers is leading to fruitful hypotheses to be tested with human subjects. [See Information Theory.]

Motivational variables . Although clinical psychology has always made dynamic factors central to its understanding of behavior—perhaps it could not exist otherwise—the rest of the profession has often ignored them to an extraordinary degree or, at best, given them superficial lip service while occupying itself with other matters. Since World War ii, however, the conditions which instigate, regulate, and adjust behavior have moved to the forefront of interest. There has been a hardheaded —often brilliant—attack on theoretical problems with principles derived from psychoanalysis and its successors, organismic psychology, field and biosocial theory, existential philosophy, and Jungian analytic psychology. Lagging only a step or two behind, experimental methodology has forged ahead in many directions to incorporate both intrinsic personality variables and extrinsic situational conditions into an intensive empirical exploration of the factors responsible both for consistency and change in cognitive behavior. The continuum described above between autistic and realistic thinking is inescapably linked at both poles to motivational conditions, on the one hand with internal needs, drives, and motives and on the other hand with goals and other environmental demands. In this fashion the intimate relation between motivation and thought processes is coming increasingly to be understood and, accordingly, to be investigated. It can confidently be predicted that this represents a fundamental trend and one that will vastly influence the future treatment of human thinking. This means that the course of thinking is coming to be viewed in terms of complex interactions among intrinsic properties of the person and the special situational conditions that accompany his problem solving and imaginative activities. [See Drives; Motivation.]

Creativity . As our society has steadily placed greater and greater emphasis upon education, technological improvement, and planned cultural change, it has become more crucial to discover talent and to foster its exercise. These requirements have forced psychologists to search for the conditions in the acquisition, organization, and utilization of experience associated with original thinking in all the diverse fields of the arts and sciences. The current period is marked by efforts to investigate these matters in personality development, the classroom, and adult cognitive functioning. We can be sure that this trend will continue.

The six kinds of interest just summarized present a host of profound challenges to psychological scientists. The numerous problems yet to be solved emphasize the empirical infancy of the psychology of thinking. There has been notable progress in moving beyond the maze running of the rat, the rote learning and mechanical puzzles of the college student, and the listing of cognitive oddities characteristic of the psychotic. Now we have a firm recognition that implicit, mediating processes can be treated meaningfully as psychological variables; and we have a concerted endeavor to investigate the relations between cognitive processes and the context of motivational conditions which bring them about.

W. Edgar Vinacke

[Directly related are the entries Attitudes; Cognitive Theory; Concept Formation; Problem Solving; Reasoning AND Logic. Other relevant material may be found in Creativity; Developmental Psychology, article on A Theory OF Development; GestaltTheory; Intelligence AND Intelligence Testing; Learning; Perception; and in the biographies of Bartlett; Binet; Goldstein; Hull; James; Koffka; KÖhler; Külpe; Lewin; Thorndike; Titchener; Watson; Wertheim; Woodworth; Wundt.]


Bartlett, Frederic C. (1932) 1950 Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Bartlett, Frederic C. 1958 Thinking. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Basic Books.

Berlyne, D. E. 1965 Structure and Direction in Thinking. New York: Wiley.

Brown, Roger W. 1958 Words and Things. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Bruner, Jerome S.; GOODNOW, J. J.; and Austin, G. A. 1956 A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley.

Duncker, Karl 1945 On Problem-solving. Psychological Monographs 58, no. 5.

Flavell, John H. 1963 The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Hall, Calvin S.; and Lindzey, Gardner 1957 Theories of Personality. New York: Wiley; London: Chapman.

Harvey, O. J.; HUNT, D. E.; and Schroder, H. M. 1961 Conceptual Systems and Personality Organization. New York: Wiley.

Hayakawa, Samuel I. (1949) 1964 Language in Thought and Action. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt.

Humphrey, George 1951 Thinking: An Introduction to Its Experimental Psychology. London: Methuen; New York: Wiley.

Hunt, Earl B. 1962 Concept Learning: An Information Processing Problem. New York: Wiley.

Johnson, Donald McEwEN 1955 The Psychology of Thought and Judgment. New York: Harper.

Kler, Wolfgang (1917) 1956 The Mentality of Apes. 2d ed., rev. London: Routledge. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1959 by Random House.

Krech, David;

Crutchfield, Richard S.; and Ballachey, E. L. (1948) 1962 Individual in Society: A Textbook of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. → First published as Theory and Problems of Social Psychology, by David Krech and Richard S. Crutch-field.

Leeper, Robert 1951 Cognitive Processes. Pages 730-757 in S. S. Stevens (editor), Handbook of Experimental Psychology. New York: Wiley.

Maltzman, Irving 1955 Thinking: From a Behavior-istic Point of View. Psychological Review 62:275-286.

Mowrer, O. Hobart 1960 Learning Theory and the Symbolic Processes. New York: Wiley.

Murphy, Gardner 1947 Personality: A Biosocial Approach to Origins and Structure. New York: Harper.

New York Academy OF Sciences 1960 Fundamentals of Psychology: The Psychology of Thinking. New York Academy of Sciences, Annals, Vol. 91, Article 1. Edited by Ernest Harms. New York: The Academy.

Osgood, Charles E. (1953) 1959 Method and Theory in Experimental Psychology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → See especially pages 603-637 on “Problem-solving and Insight,” pages 638-679 on “Thinking,” and pages 680-727 on “Language Behavior.”

Osgood, Charles E.; Suci, G. J.; and Tannenbaum, P. H. (1957) 1961 The Measurement of Meaning. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Piaget, Jean (1927) 1930 The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality. New York: Harcourt; London: Routledge. → First published as La causalité physique chez I’enfant.

Rapaport, David (editor and translator) 1956 Organization and Pathology of Thought: Selected Sources. Austen Riggs Foundation, Stockbridge, Mass., Monograph No. 1. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Rokeach, Milton 1960 The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations Into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems. New York: Basic Books.

Russell, David H. 1956 Children’s Thinking. Boston: Ginn.

Vinacke, W. Edgar 1952 The Psychology of Thinking. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wertheimeh, Max (1945) 1961 Productive Thinking. Enl. ed., edited by Michael Wertheimer. London: Tavistock. → Contains a bibliography of Max Wert-heimer’s publications.

Woodworth, Robert S.; and Schlosberg, Harold (1938) 1960 Experimental Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Holt. → Woodworth was the sole author of the 1938 edition. See especially pages 814-848.


In his “Glossary of Some Terms Used in the Objective Science of Behavior” Verplanck took “cognition” as a term that pretends to theoretical status but that is not reducible to empirical terms, “a hypothetical stimulus-stimulus association or perceptual organization postulated to account for expectancies.” He believed that “it is not possible as yet to define [it] in other than intuitive terminology, except for trivial cases” (1957, p. 7).

Verplanck’s skepticism is less justified today, although there still is some confusion about the meaning of “cognition.” The meaning of this term can be clarified, however, if it is used to refer, not to an identifiable psychological process, but to a problem area with specifiable research focuses. Let us first distinguish between perception, sensation, and cognition as such problem areas.

“Perception” represents the most general area and includes both sensation and cognition. The term refers to those psychological problems in which one seeks to explain the systematic variation of response by relating this response variation to some systematic variation in stimulation. Perception differs from other interest areas in psychology because in it stimulation is considered the critical set of antecedents for the explanation of response variation. In other areas—the study of motivation, for example—response variability is accounted for in terms of variation in the states of deprivation and arousal; in the study of learning, in terms of practice and reinforcement.

Both sensation and cognition deal with the relations between response variation and stimulation, but they differ in the way these relations are conceived. The sensory psychologist analyzes perceptual processes, with an emphasis on the transformation of energy. He measures the input in physical terms, and he wishes to know how this physical energy is transformed by the organism into other forms. In the case of vision, he may begin with electromagnetic energy, observe its transformation into biochemical energy at the retina and then into neural energy along the afferent or central pathways, and perhaps trace it to its fate in overt muscular responses. [See Hearing; Perception; Senses; Vision.]

For the cognitive theorist, the analysis of the relations between response and stimulus variations focuses, not on energy, but on information. He, too, begins with the stimulus, but he is primarily concerned with its properties as a signal. Signals are the same physical events which the sensory psychologist calls stimuli. However, they are viewed, not in terms of their energy characteristics, but in terms of the information they carry.

The cognitive theorist may be concerned with the acquiring and processing of information, with further cognitive consequences of this process, or with utilization of information. He may be concerned with the way the individual detects signals, distinguishes one from another, or identifies them. But in order for the person to identify signals, he must have a code, which is a set of rules for mapping signals into symbols. Language, for instance, is such a code, but gestures of humans and songs of birds are others. The analysis may also be concerned with the sequential arrangement of symbols into messages and with the extraction of information from these messages and its utilization. In these processes the individual utilizes information acquired in the past, codes, rules of message sequencing (e.g., syntax), and inferential heuristics. The totality of this apparatus has become known as the individual’s cognitive organization. [SeeCommunication, Animal;Information Theory; Language; Reasoning AND Logic

Cognitive organization

Theorists dealing with cognitive organization stress different aspects: some are concerned with the components and elements of cognitive organization (Kelley 1955; Peak 1958; Harvey et al. 1961; Zajonc 1960a); others are concerned with the ways these components relate to one another (Asch 1946; Anderson 1962; Heider 1946), or with the consequences they have for attitudes and behavior (Festinger 1957). Abelson and Rosenberg (1958) constructed a theory that stresses the im-plicative and inferential character of cognition. They considered elements of cognitive organization to be “cognitive representations of ’things,’ concrete and abstract,” to which individuals can attach verbal labels. Three types of elements were distinguished: actors (oneself, other people, groups, etc.), means (actions, instrumental responses, etc.), and ends (outcomes). These elements relate to each other by four types of relations: positive, negative, null, and ambivalent. Two elements together with the relation between them form units called basic sentences. Eight psycho-logical rules for the implications among basic sentences are postulated. Where A, B, and C are actors and “things” and p and n are positive and negative relations, respectively, one rule is: AnB and BnC implies ApC. For example:

(1) India (A) opposes (n) U.S. Far Eastern policy (B);

(2) U.S. Far Eastern policy (B) is directed against (n) communism (C);

(3) Therefore, India (A) is in favor (p) of communism (C).

Another rule in the Abelson-Rosenberg psycho-logic is the following: ApB and BnC implies AnC. Furthermore, if within the given structure matrix we have the four sentences

(1) AnB; (2) BnC; (3) ApD; (4) DnC,

ApC and AnC are both implied. And if this arises, the two contradictory implications are combined into one in which A is connected to C by an ambivalent (a) relation. A structure without any ambivalent relations is called balanced, and a structure with ambivalent relations, imbalanced. Like other writers (Heider 1946; Festinger 1957; Osgood & Tannenbaum 1955), Abelson and Rosenberg assume that balanced states are preferred and sought.

In some cases the conceptualization of cognitive organization has been greatly influenced by the gestalt approach. Asch (1946), for instance, read to one group of subjects the following list of characteristics, descriptive of a fictitious person: intelligent, skillful, industrious, warm, determined, practical, cautious. Another group of subjects received the same list except that “cold” was substituted for “warm.” Both groups were then asked to endorse on a checklist of 18 traits (generous, wise, strong, honest, etc.) those characteristics that applied to the fictitious person. For some traits, vast differences were obtained as a function of the warm-cold variable.

Asch argued that total impressions are formed not simply by averaging or adding the array of the characteristics given. Some traits are central—they have a great impact on the over-all impression— while others are peripheral and have relatively little influence. In short, impressions are formed according to gestalt-like principles, and they must be analyzed by an appeal to gestalt-like laws.

Recent results, however, suggest that Asch’s findings can be accurately described by a simple averaging model or by a weighted averaging model. In one experiment, for instance, Anderson (1962) asked subjects to rate for “likableness” hypothetical persons described by sets of three adjectives. Anderson’s data showed that there was an average correlation of 0.967 between the observed scale value of the over-all impression and the average of the scale values of the three adjectives constituting the set.

But in some cases a simple summation of traits also predicts an over-all impression (e.g., Fishbein & Hunter 1964). It should be noted that the averaging model predicts that the compound can never be more extreme than the most extreme of its components. The summation model, on the other hand, predicts that the compound is always more extreme than the most extreme of its components. Manis, Gleason, and Dawes (1966) have recently proposed a model that constitutes a compromise between the averaging and the summation models and that seems to fit data rather well.

While averaging, summation, and their combination serve well to describe simple cognitive organizations, more complex instances involve interactions and interrelations of cognitive elements that must be described by more complex concepts. Zajonc (1960a), for instance, defined various morphological properties of complex cognitive structures and demonstrated that they are profoundly affected by the function which the cognitive organization serves. For instance, if the individual is “tuned in” for receiving information, he will exhibit a more flexible structure than when he is tuned in for transmission.

Other studies of cognitive organization are more concerned with its content. Especially interesting are those that attempt to relate cognitive organization to the individual’s social environment. It is assumed that because of their extended commerce with the society of which they are part, individuals develop subjective and private “theories” about it. On the subjective level, they form principles about interpersonal relations and about behavior in society. These principles serve an adaptive function because they help the individual to predict, to anticipate, to understand, and to take part in the network of social interrelationships. Recent research began analyzing these subjective theories, called schemata, emphasizing primarily schemata of such interpersonal relations as liking, influence, dominance, trust, etc. De Soto and Kuethe (1958; 1959) and De Soto (1960) have shown, for instance, that social schemata characterize the liking relation as symmetrical (i.e., reciprocal) and transitive, while schemata characterize the dominance relation as asymmetrical and transitive.

Cognitive consistency

Recent research and theory have paid considerable attention to the processes of cognitive change. It is commonly assumed today that the central dynamic of cognitive change is a striving for consistency. Three approaches to the study of cognitive consistency will be reviewed: structural balance, congruity, and cognitive dissonance.

Structural balance . The principle of balance was derived from Heider’s work on the perception of causality (1944), which led him to specify a set of conditions underlying unit formation. The basic assumption in this general approach is that cognitive units tend to seek steady states. Basic in determining the state of a unit is the “dynamic character” (positive or negative) of its parts. For example, a unit might consist of a person, p, and of his action, x. Each of these two parts might be evaluated positively or negatively and, hence, have either a positive or negative dynamic character. If parts of a unit have the same dynamic character, steady state (balance) is said to exist. When parts of a unit have different dynamic character, disequilibrium arises, and there will be a tendency to segregate the parts from each other (Heider 1946, p. 107). [See Homeostasis.]

The parts of cognitive units consist of persons (p, o,q,---), objects (x, y,z,---), and their relations to one another. The relations considered by balance theory are either sentiment relations, +L and —L (e.g., Bill likes Joe; Joe dislikes candy; Bill feels neighborly toward Jim), or unit relations (e.g., Bill owns a car; Joe reminds Al of an acquaintance; Jim built this bookcase). Steady (balanced) states are defined as follows: “A dyad is balanced if the relations between the two entities are all positive ... or all negative. . . . Disharmony results when relations of different sign character exist. A triad is balanced when all three of the relations are positive or when two of the relations are negative and one is positive” (Heider 1958, p. 202). When only two relations in the triad are positive, imbalance is said to characterize the structure. While Heider tends to define as imbalanced a triad which has three negative relations, he admits that such structures are ambiguous (1958, p. 203). According to the above definition of balance, the following illustrations represent balanced structures: “Bill admires something he owns”; “Joe likes the bicycle which Jim, his friend, bought”; “Al dislikes Art; Al opposes U.S. policy in Vietnam, while Art endorses it.”

When a state of imbalance exists, balance may be attained by changing either sentiment relations or unit relations or both. When incomplete structures exist, new relations will be formed according to the principle of balance. If Bill likes Joe and Al, who don’t know one another, he might want to bring them together. If Art likes Ann, he will wish that Ann like him. Incomplete structures are completed according to the principle of symmetry in the case of the dyad—that is, the sentiment that exists recruits a sentiment of the same sign. In the triad, completion may often occur according to the principle of transitivity—that is, if Jim likes Frank and Frank likes Sam, the relation between Jim and Sam will tend to be positive. But when Jim dislikes Frank and Frank dislikes Sam, then transitivity will not apply. According to Heider, given two negative relations in the triad, “balance can be obtained either when the third relation is positive or when it is negative, though there appears to be a preference for the positive alternative” (1958, p. 206).

Using the mathematical theory of directed graphs, Cartwright and Harary (1956) formalized Heider’s concept of balance and extended it to cover structures larger than the triad and to distinguish between degrees of balance.

The bulk of evidence bearing on Heider’s assumption about an underlying preference for balanced states comes from rating hypothetical situations for their pleasantness. For instance, using Heider’s definition of balance, Jordan (1953) showed to his subjects statements of the following kind: “I dislike O; I like X; O has no sort of bond or relationship with X.” The subject is “instructed to imagine himself in the situation playing the role of T and then to rate it for experienced pleasantness or unpleasantness. . ..” In general, Jordan’s results supported Heider’s hypothesis, and other studies using the same technique confirmed these early findings (Morrissette 1958; Rodrigues 1966). In some experiments, instead of being asked to rate hypothetical situations for pleasantness, the subject is asked to predict a missing bond (Morrissette 1958) or to indicate which of the relations given he would most like to see changed (Rodrigues 1966). These studies, too, give general support to Heider’s hypothesis. Similar evidence comes from experiments in which subjects learn hypothetical balanced and unbalanced structures (Zajonc & Burnstein 1965a; 1965b).

The principle of congruity . Our attitudes toward persons influence the way we interpret their actions and statements. The process of persuasion is characterized by this tendency, and the principle of congruity developed by Osgood and Tannenbaum (1955) is concerned with these problems. The elements of the theory of congruity are a source, a concept, and an assertion made by the source about the concept. When the subject’s attitude toward two of these three elements are known, the principle of congruity can predict how these attitudes will change when a third element is introduced. Commonly, the known elements are attitudes toward the source and toward the concept. Thus, for instance, the subject’s attitudes toward the Chicago Tribune and “abstract art” are measured, and predictions are made about the changes in his attitudes toward both after he finds out that the Chicago Tribune has made a positive (or negative) assertion about abstract art.

A state of equilibrium (congruity) prevails when the person’s evaluations of the source and of the concept have the same scale values and when they are associated with each other by a positive assertion. A state of equilibrium also exists when these evaluations are exactly opposite and when the assertion connecting source and concept is negative. All other combinations of the three elements are not maximally congruent. When a configuration is in a state of incongruity, there will be pressures toward increased congruity. Although the principle of congruity is a special case of the principle of balance (Zajonc 1960b), it goes further because it is able to accommodate evaluations that vary in magnitude and because it is able to make predictions about the direction and magnitude of change. However, the numerical predictions do not always fit obtained results.

In a study by Tannenbaum (1956), attitudes toward some sources (e.g., labor leaders) and concepts (e.g., legalized gambling) were obtained for 405 college students. Five weeks later the subjects were given stories in which the various source-concept pairs were connected by negative or positive assertions. Afterward, the sources and the concepts were rated again by the subjects. The correlation between obtained and predicted attitude changes was 0.91. This coefficient shows that the basic equations are well able to order attitude data, which is no mean feat. But the numerical predictions are less accurate. For instance, in a study by Norris (1965), pronounced and significant differences were found between obtained and predicted results. When directional or order criteria, rather than magnitude of score values, are used in testing the theory, the principle of congruity fares better (e.g., Tannenbaum & Gengel 1966).

Cognitive dissonance . The theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957) has stimulated research in various areas of social psychology. It is stated in less formal terms than either the balance or the congruity theory. Cognitions can stand in a relevant or irrelevant relation to one another, and relevant cognitions can be either consonant or dissonant with respect to one another. The state of dissonance implies mutual inconsistency (logical and psychological): “. . . two elements are in a dissonant relation if, considering these two alone, the obverse of one element would follow from the other. To state it a bit more formally, X and y are dissonant if not-x follows from y” (ibid., p. 13).

The entire theory of cognitive dissonance can be stated in a few propositions:

(1) Cognitive dissonance is a noxious state.

(2) The individual will attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance or to eliminate it, and he will act to avoid events that increase it.

(3) In the case of consonance the individual will act to avoid dissonance-producing events.

(4) The severity or the intensity of cognitive dissonance varies with the importance of the cognitions involved and the relative number of cognitions standing in dissonant relation to one another.

(5) The strength of the tendencies enumerated in (2) and (3) is a direct function of the severity of dissonance.

(6) Cognitive dissonance can be reduced or eliminated only by adding new cognitions or by changing existing ones.

(7 ) The new cognitions may throw added weight to one side, decreasing the proportion of cognitions which are dissonant.

(8) The added cognitions may change the importance of the cognitive elements that are in dissonant relation with one another.

(9) Cognitions may change so and may become less important or less contradictory with others.

(10) These processes may recruit other behaviors which have cognitive consequences favoring consonance, such as seeking new information.

Empirical work on dissonance theory can be divided into four areas of interest: postdecisional effects; insufficient justification; disconfirmation of expectancies; and exposure to information.

Postdecisional effects. By definition, every decision is followed by dissonance. Since decision involves a selection of one among alternatives, it necessarily entails forsaking the attractive features of the rejected alternative and accepting the negative features of the chosen alternative. The cognition that the chosen alternative has negative features is dissonant with the cognition that it had been chosen, and the cognition that the rejected alternative has some attractive features is dissonant with the cognition that it had been rejected. Dissonance, however, can be resolved by revoking the decision, reversing the decision, or re-evaluating the attractiveness of the alternatives. Revoking or reversing the decision is often impossible or very costly. Moreover, by revoking it, the individual must return to the state of predecision, which, of course, is itself a state of conflict and, hence, noxious. The third form of resolution is most common.

The typical experiment on postdecisional effects requires the subject to make a choice among a set of alternatives whose attractiveness is measured both before and after his decision. In the pioneering study by Brehm (1956’, subjects rated eight products with the knowledge that they would receive one of them for taking part in the experiment. Following the initial preference rating, the subject was given the opportunity to choose between two of the eight products. Half of the subjects had to choose between two alternatives that received similar ratings (high dissonance), and half, between two alternatives that were rated farther apart (low dissonance). A control group was given no choice at all and received a gift chosen by the experimenter and equal in desirability to those in the experimental groups. Since the subjects’ decisions could not be revoked or reversed, the only avenue of dissonance reduction was through the re-evaluation of the alternatives. Brehm found rather clear support for the hypotheses derived from dissonance theory: (a) the chosen alternative increased in attractiveness following the choice; (b) the rejected alternative decreased in attractiveness following the choice; (c) both of these changes were more pronounced when the subjects chose among the products close on the preference-rating scales than among products farther apart; and (d) in the control group no changes in attractiveness of the received products occurred. Subsequent research has substantiated these findings, and it has further demonstrated that the extent to which the individual feels free in making the choice and the extent to which he feels responsible for it and committed to it enhance dissonance effects (Brehm & Cohen 1962). [See Conflict, article on psychological Aspects; Decision Making, article on psychological Aspects.]

The “spreading apart” of choice alternatives which follows decision does not give unequivocal support to dissonance theory, because these effects can also be predicted by a self-actualization theory that assumes that the individual wants to think of himself as an intelligent decision maker and that he will distort the consequences of his decisions accordingly. If dissonance reduction is a significant positive incentive, however, it should be sought even when one’s self-esteem is threatened. Thus, if the individual regards himself as a poor decision maker, dissonance theory, unlike self-actualization theory, predicts that instead of spreading apart, choice alternatives will be evaluated more homogeneously; since the individual believes he is unable to make wise decisions, he is also likely to believe that the alternative he has decided upon may be inferior to the ones that he has considered and rejected. These arguments were advanced by the Polish social psychologist Malewski (1962). An experiment similar to the original one by Brehm (1956)—except for the introduction of sociometric measures of self-esteem—confirmed Malewski’s expectations. An independent study by Gerard, Blevans, and Malcolm (1964) in which self-esteem was manipulated experimentally provided strong support for Malewski’s hypothesis.

In some cases the individual finds out only after having made a choice that the chosen object or course of action has undesirable consequences. A state of dissonance ensues, and processes aimed at its reduction are set in motion. An experiment by Aronson and Mills (1959) illustrates this paradigm. College girls were recruited to join a group discussing the psychology of sex. Joining the group, however, required as one condition a severe initiation process, consisting of an “embarrassment test.” Following the demanding test, the subject was allowed to listen in on the group she was about to join. Played to the subject, however, was a tape of an extremely dull discussion. The findings were consistent with the predictions of dissonance theory. Subjects who underwent a severe initiation evaluated the dull discussion and its participants more favorably than did subjects with mild initiation, a result recently substantiated by Gerard and Mathewson (1966).

Insufficient justification. One of the derivations of dissonance theory holds that when the individual finds himself engaged in behavior which is contrary to his convictions, beliefs, or principles or when he finds himself committed to action which promises no rewards, a state of dissonance will exist and the individual will attempt to reduce it in various ways. This assumption led Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) to design a study in which subjects were offered either $1 or $20 for telling a fellow student that a boring and tedious task they had just performed was quite interesting. When examined for their own judgments about the task the subjects who were offered the smaller reward expressed greater interest in the task than subjects offered the larger reward. The results were interpreted by assuming that $1 is an insufficient reward for the false statement, and hence, dissonance exists between the subject’s knowledge that the task he just finished is extremely boring and his knowledge that he is nevertheless expressing great enthusiasm about it. One way to reduce this dissonance is to believe that the task wasn’t really that boring.

In other experiments on insufficient justification, subjects are offered rewards for arguing against their convictions. The dissonance which exists between the individual’s cognition that he believes one thing and the cognition that he is arguing for another is commonly resolved by changing his beliefs in the direction of the position advocated. It has generally been found that the magnitude of this change is an inverse function of the reward offered (e.g., Brehm & Cohen 1962). These results are the subject of lively controversy at this time (for a more complete review, see Zajonc 1967).

An interesting application of the insufficient-justification paradigm is in the area of aggression. An individual who punishes another when he knows him to be a decent fellow may experience dissonance, especially when there is little justification for the punishment. The general finding in this area is that as dissonance increases, post-aggression attitudes toward the victim become increasingly negative. [See Brock & Buss 1964; see also Aggression.]

If, in the case of compliance, the individual bolsters justification by coming to accept and favor his actions, there should also be effects on these actions themselves. If a person commits himself, for a clearly insufficient reward or under obviously inadequate threat of punishment, to a boring or tedious task, he will come to like this task (Brehm & Cohen 1959). But if he likes this task, he should expend greater effort on it, perform it faster or better, persist at it longer, etc. These hypotheses, advanced by Weick (1964), are finding substantial support in current research. Weick has shown improvements on a concept-formation task given under conditions of low justification. Ferdinand (1965) found similar strong results on a rote-learning task.

Disconfirmed expectancies. When an individual develops expectancies about a given outcome only to discover that the outcome fails to materialize, a state of dissonance exists. Dissonance is further increased if as a result of these expectancies, the individual made a behavioral or attitudinal “investment” in the future outcome. A special and interesting case of disconfirmed expectancies obtains with respect to the individual’s view of himself. Aronson and Carlsmith (1962) theorized that when the individual’s expectations about his ability on a given task are in conflict with his actual performance, dissonance exists. If the individual is unable to adjust the evaluation of his own ability, his major means of dissonance reduction lies in distorting the evaluation of his performance or in modifying actual performance. He can distort the level of his performance by finding new standards of comparison, call it an accident, attribute his performance to causes independent of his ability, etc. Or he can adjust the performance itself. Aronson and Carlsmith carried out an experiment in which subjects were allowed to develop expectancies about their ability on an unfamiliar task. During the course of the task, some subjects found themselves performing much better than they expected and others, much poorer. When allowed to repeat that task, subjects adjusted their performances according to their expectancies. That is, those who expected to do well and found themselves doing poorly adjusted their performances upward, and—more important—those who expected to do poorly but found themselves doing exceptionally well, adjusted their performances downward.

Exposure to information. According to dissonance theory, postdecisional dissonance may be resolved by a re-evaluation of alternatives in favor of the chosen one. This re-evaluation can be enhanced if the individual can marshal support for it from his environment. For instance, an individual who purchased a car might seek out people who bought the same car; he might try to persuade his friends who are considering buying a car to make a similar purchase; he might demonstrate and display the attractive features of his newly purchased automobile to his friends; and, in general, he might actively seek out information which is favorable to the car he bought and negative to those he considered but rejected. But dissonance reduction will be impaired if the individual exposes himself to information which is favorable to the rejected alternative or unfavorable to the one he selected. In short, it is predicted that if dissonance exists, the individual will expose himself to information so as to reduce dissonance, and if dissonance does not exist, he will avoid dissonance-producing information.

In comparison with other areas, experimental evidence of the preference for supportive information and avoidance of discrepant information is generally weak. In reviewing this evidence, Freed-man and Sears concluded that in “no way can the available evidence be said to support the contention that people seek out supportive information and avoid nonsupportive information” (1965, p. 90). In one of the earliest studies in this area (Brod-beck 1956), it was found that subjects exposed to material opposing their beliefs—and, thus, suffering dissonance—were more likely to seek out information from people sharing their beliefs than were subjects not exposed to counterattitudinal material. But a substantial number of subjects were willing to receive information discrepant with their beliefs. Similarly, Ehrlich, Guttman, Schonbach, and Mills (see Ehrlich et al. 1957) found that readership of advertisements by new-car buyers is greater for the car selected than for the cars considered but rejected. However, contrary to the prediction from dissonance theory, advertisements about cars rejected were read more often than those about cars not considered at all. Mills, Aronson, and Robinson (1959) allowed students to decide between two kinds of exams they were to take. Afterward the subjects chose between articles which favored or derogated their decision. When the articles were positive toward the two types of exams, the subjects preferred articles favoring their decision, but no difference was obtained for articles that emphasized negative features of the two types of exams. Rosen (1961) found similar results.

Failure to obtain evidence for the selective-exposure hypothesis is also reported in an area where dissonance experienced by the individual must be quite severe: smoking and its harmful effects on health. By definition, “the knowledge that smoking is conducive to lung cancer is dissonant with continuing to smoke” (Festinger 1957, p. 153). While smokers’ attitudes and beliefs about cancer differ from those of nonsmokers and former smokers, the evidence of exposure to critical information by these two groups seems to be negative. Feather (1963) found that smokers do not seek out information which contradicts the relationship between smoking and lung cancer more than non-smokers nor do they avoid more than nonsmokers information about the dangers of smoking. [See Smoking.]

Robert B. Zajonc

[Directly related are the entries Attitudes; Cognitive THEORY; Stimulation Drives; Systems Analysis, article on psychological Systems. Other relevant material may be found in Information Theory; Homeostasis; Persuasion;


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"Thinking" is an essentially human activity occurring in two basic forms. We may think in order to attain knowledge of what is, must, or may be the case; we also may think with a view to making up our mind about what we will or will not do. Following Aristotle, these two forms of thought may be called, respectively, contemplation and deliberation. Both forms may be carried on well or badly, successfully or unsuccessfully, intelligently or stupidly. When contemplation is successful, it terminates in a conclusion; successful deliberation terminates in a decision or resolution. Again following Aristotle, the form of reasoning involved in contemplation may be called theoretical, and the form involved in deliberation may be called practical. Obviously, our day-by-day reasoning in ordinary life is an untidy mixture of both these basic forms.

Less generally, thinking is commonly understood as a largely covert activity, something done mainly in foro interno. This activity is also conceived of as intentional in Franz Brentano's sense of "being directed towards an object." For whether we are trying to solve a logical puzzle or are in the process of making up our minds about what to say to a noisy, officious neighbor, we are thinking about something or other. This object (or subject) of our thinking may be either abstract or concrete. We may think about courage, justice, or humanity just as easily as we think about our neighbors and friends, our flowers and the evening sunset. In thinking about these various objects, whether abstract or concrete, we are also necessarily thinking something about them. We think of them as having various features, as doing something or other, or as being related in this or that way to other things of various sorts. For convenience, we may express the last fact about thinking by saying that our specific thoughts have contents as well as objects. We may think that the rain is welcome, that Mary is enchanting, that debts ought to be paid, or that triangularity entails trilaterality.

Another distinctive feature of particular thoughts is that the language used to describe them is nonextensional in a rich sense that is commonly called intentional. As Roderick Chisholm has pointed out, this type of discourse has three distinguishing marks. For one thing, some sentences used to describe thoughts or to ascribe them to thinkers may contain a substantive expression (a name or description) in such a way that neither the sentence nor its negation implies either the existence or the nonexistence of that thing to which the substantive expression truly applies. An example of such a sentence, which illustrates that one may think about nonexisting objects, is "Tommy is thinking about Santa Claus."

Second, a noncompound sentence about thinking may contain a prepositional clause in such a way that neither the sentence nor its negation implies either the truth or the falsity of the propositional clause. An example of such a sentence, emphasizing that one may think what is false, is "It occurred to Jones that demons cause schizophrenia." Finally, a sentence like "Mary thought that the author of Waverley wrote Ivanhoe " has the peculiarity that although Walter Scott is the author of Waverley, one cannot infer that Mary thought that Scott wrote Ivanhoe. This last mark of intentionality implies that although things or events have many names and may be described in many different ways, the fact that a person thinks of them in connection with one name or description does not imply that he thinks of them in connection with some other name or description.

From these few remarks about the nonextensional character of discourse about thoughts, several important conclusions about the nature of thinking may immediately be drawn. First, of all the logically equivalent linguistic forms that may be used to describe either the object or the content of a person's thought, only one such form is in most cases strictly applicable. This suggests that thinking something about a particular subject generally involves conceiving of the subject under a certain name or description and attributing something to the subject according to a fairly specific form of attribution. To the extent that the name or description and the attribution are expressible in certain specific words, it will not, in general, be true that an expression or description of the thought in some other words will be equally accurate. The force of this point may be put by saying that at least some thoughts are essentially conceptual, tied to a particular mode of conceiving of a thing or attribute, and felicitously expressed only in specific verbal forms.

Another consequence of these considerations is that certain thoughts have a particular logical form. This emerges not only from the fact that in most thoughts a subject (or object) is in some way characterized, so that the thinking may involve the idea of, schematically, S 's being M, but also from the possibility that certain logical forms may be involved in a thought while equivalent forms are not. Thus, from "Jones thought that it will rain or snow," it does not follow that Jones thought that it will not both not rain and not snow, even though what is thought in these two cases is logically equivalent by virtue of De Morgan's laws. (One reason that this implication does not hold is that Jones may never have heard of these laws.)

Taking all of what has been said about particular thoughts into account, it appears that as ordinarily conceived, the thoughts involved in both contemplation and deliberation have the following basic features. First, they are characteristically, but perhaps not necessarily, carried on in foro interno. Second, they are directed toward an object or a number of objects, and they either attribute something to, or deny something about, this object or objects. Third, the language used to describe them is nonextensional in the sense of possessing at least one of the three intentional marks mentioned above. Fourth, thoughts are often conceived in relation to, and are felicitously expressible by, specific verbal forms; that is, they are often essentially linguistic or conceptual. Finally, particular thoughts have some kind of logical form; they may be categorical, hypothetical, disjunctive, universal, particular, and the like. In general, it may be said that the philosophical task of analyzing the concept of thinking must yield an explanation of exactly what sort of activity thinking is and of how and to what extent it can possess the features just mentioned.

Traditional Theories

A survey of the full range of views on thinking that have been influential in the history of philosophy would reveal, roughly speaking, that most important theories of thinking have been variants of one or more of the following basic views: Platonism, Aristotelianism, conceptualism, imagism, psychological nominalism, and behaviorism. A brief description and criticism of these may thus serve as a useful introduction to the philosophical theory of thinking.

According to the Platonist, thinking is either a dialogue in the soul involving mental words that refer to Forms (such as Redness, Triangularity, Flying) and, possibly, to individuals (such as Socrates) or a spiritual activity of inspecting or recollecting Forms and discerning their natures and interrelations. According to Aristotelianism, thinking is an act of the intellect in which a thing's essence, or intelligible form, actually qualifies the intellect; to think about humanity is for one's intellect to be informed byliterally, to sharethe essence humanity. To the extent that one thinks something about humanityfor instance, that it involves animalityone's intellect is also informed by this other essence, the latter being perhaps part of the former.

For conceptualists (the rationalists, for example, and Immanuel Kant) thinking is an activity of bringing concepts or ideas before the mind, these being either innate and applicable to the world in virtue of God's grace (René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz) or else formed by abstraction from sense experiences and thus actually sharing the abstract features of those experiences (John Locke and, for empirical concepts only, Kant). For imagists (George Berkeley, David Hume) thinking is basically a sequence of episodes involving images; these images are tied to certain "habits," which are the inveterate tendencies of the mind to move from one image to another. To think about triangularity, according to this view, is to imagine some particular triangle while disposed to pass on to other images "of the same sort."

According to the psychological nominalist (such as Thomas Hobbes when he speaks of reasoning) thinking is literally a dialogue in the soul (or, better, in the head) involving the use of verbal images, or mental words, which denote things or classes of things. In this view a complete thought is a mental utterance of a sentence, such as "Tom is tall." Finally, according to behaviorism, thinking is either thoughtful overt speechthoughtful in the sense that it is in accordance with various principles of relevance, evidence, or inference that the agent is prepared to cite in explanation of his behavioror a changing series of dispositions to behave intelligently that the agent can at any time avow.

some basic difficulties

One perennial problem peculiar to the Platonic approach is that of accounting for one's ability to learn about the Forms and thus of learning to think. The trouble is that Forms are conceived of as independent of the changing world in which we live, and Plato's suggestion (in the Phaedo ) that man was born with an ability to "recollect" the Forms experienced in another life is scarcely acceptable to a contemporary thinker. Also, since Forms are conceived of as distinct from the common domain of sense experience, there is a profound difficulty about how to justify knowledge of the Forms. Plato had argued in the Theaetetus that true knowledge "can give an account of itself," but it seems that a satisfactory answer has not been given to the question of how agreement in argument or a man's ability to answer objections brought against his view shows knowledge of an independent world of Forms. This problem has been posed more recently, for instance by W. V. Quine, as a demand that the Platonist provide clear, objective criteria for the identity of such strange otherworldly entities as propositions and attributes.

A basic problem for the Aristotelian is to account for the logical form of a thoughtthat is, for the fact that one may think "If p were the case, q would be the case" or even "It will either rain or snow." The reason for difficulty here is that there are no intelligible forms corresponding to subjunctive conditionality, to disjunction, or, indeed, to any other logical relation, and it is by no means clear how the intelligible essences that do inform the intellect can be joined to constitute a thought about something conditional or disjunctive. Also, since all general ideas are presumably to be extracted from the sensible forms of experienced objects, thought about what is unobservable, like electrons and negative charges, seems to be impossible as well.

Apart from their highly questionable theories of intelligible essences, one basic drawback common to the Platonic and the Aristotelian views of thinking is their difficulty in accounting for a man's ability to think about particular, nonabstract objects. In the Sophist, Plato does, it is true, suggest that some of the mental words of a soul's dialogue may refer to particulars such as Socrates, but his general position is that the objects of thought must be unchanging, intelligible objects, which are universal rather than particular. In arguing that the individuality of a thing is determined by its matter, which is essentially a potentiality rather than an actuality, Aristotle was committed to a similar view, although his medieval heirs argued that particulars could be thoroughly conceived of if, like angels and gods, they constituted the only possible members of a species.

John Duns Scotus, philosophizing as a modified Aristotelian, attempted to get around this difficulty by arguing that particulars are merely congeries of universals. This view, although common in the objective idealism of the nineteenth century, faces a serious problem of distinguishing actual from merely possible particulars or, as Leibniz would have expressed it, of distinguishing a world containing a certain actual particular from a merely possible world containing a "compossible" particular. This Leibnizian type of objection tends to be expressed today by saying that the language used to characterize actual, as opposed to merely possible or fictional, particulars is essentially token reflexive, involving an implicit reference to the speaker: adequate identification of a particular concrete thing cannot be given wholly in context-independent general terms (see Stuart Hampshire and P. F. Strawson).

A difficulty common to conceptualism and Aristotelianism is that in most of their forms they involve an untenable theory of concept formationnamely, abstractionism. As Peter Geach pointed out, this theory fails even for the favorite examples of the abstractionist since one cannot abstract the concept of color from an experience of scarlet, the latter not being redness plus a differentia. Conceptualists also share with Aristotelians the difficulty already noted of giving an adequate account of the logical form of various thoughts. Kant, a conceptualist, went further than most in the attempt, but he was forced to bring in a priori categories and to insist that men are born with an innate ability to think according to such patterns as "All are " and "Either or ." His approach in this regard was unsatisfactory not only because it is out of line with the well-attested fact that one must learn to think according to certain patterns but also because there are no special patterns in accordance with which all men must think. (On the last point see B. J. Whorf.)

Imagism shares with Aristotelianism and conceptualism the difficulty of accounting for the logical forms of thought, but it faces the added difficulty of explaining our ability to think of things never perceived, like infinity and million-sided polygons. Although psychological nominalism escapes these difficulties with ease, it runs headlong into the objection that we do not constantly mutter words to ourselves throughout every thinking moment. This objection is not meant to imply that we never think in words; its point is, rather, that we do not always do so and that it is not essential to our thinking one thing rather than another that we experience some verbal imagery. The final alternative, behaviorism, is simply Procrustean as a theory of thinking, for it ignores the plain fact that we do commonly think to ourselves in foro interno. As a result of this failure, the behaviorist is unable to account satisfactorily for the changes in behavior and behavioral dispositions that are frequently brought about by our silent deliberation and contemplation.

merits of traditional theories

Although each theory just discussed has serious drawbacks and can therefore be said to fail in some measure or other, each nevertheless has some hold on the truth. Thus, the Platonist's idea that thinking is a kind of dialogue in the soul is not entirely empty, for while all thinking is not inner speech pure and simple, it is still true that it is generally like inner speech in crucial respects and that it is felicitously expressed in verbal discourse. The implication that thinking may be carried out in foro interno and yet not be mere inner speech is also shared by conceptualism and imagism. The latter has the added advantage of accounting for the occasional utility of imagistic thinking, as in pondering the location of a town on a map, the kind of angle formed by certain intersecting lines, and so on (see H. H. Price). Psychological nominalism actually accounts for most features of conceptual thinking except for the possibility of its occurring without verbal imagery. The forms of thought are explained by reference to the forms of the sentences used in inner speech, the object and content of a thought are explained with reference to the words used, and so on.

Behaviorism, finally, although not without its shortcomings, does have the advantage of accounting for the important fact that some episodes of thinking, such as resolves and decisions, essentially involve behavioral dispositions: If a man is not moved, or disposed, to do A when he believes he is in circumstances C, he is not, ceteris paribus, resolved or decided to do A in C. The crucial importance of this tie-up between certain forms of thought and behavioral dispositions is that it shows how an explanation of behavior in terms of reasons (rather than causes) can be acceptable. Without this tie-up we would have to say that a man's reasons for acting are strictly irrelevant to the question of why he so acted, for the intellect could not then "move a man to act."

Toward an Adequate Account

A useful way of working out an account of thinking free from the drawbacks of traditional theories is to examine Gilbert Ryle's influential critique of all theories that insist that thinking must be done in foro interno. According to his argument in The Concept of Mind, all such theories are based on the mistaken idea that nonhabitual, intelligent human behavior is always guided by silent thought, whose presence explains why the behavior occurs and why it is intelligent. In Ryle's opinion this persistent idea is plainly untenable and leads to a vicious regress. This regress occurs because thinking is itself an activity that is admittedly done well or badly, intelligently or stupidly. This being so, the idea in point would imply that the intelligent character of thinking requires explanation by further thinking, which in turn guides the first thinking and explains why it occurs, why it is intelligent, and the like. Since this further thinking will itself be done well or badly, intelligently or stupidly, it will also require explanation by a third line of thinking and so on without end.

In rejecting this traditional idea, Ryle argues that reference to interior and anterior acts of thinking is not in any way needed for the explanation of most intelligent behavior. In his view a form of behavior, especially verbal behavior, may be regarded as intelligent, thoughtful, or even rational if it is done in accordance with certain principles of inference, evidence, relevance, and so on. That the behavior is in accordance with these principles does not mean that they are rehearsed in thought while the behavior is being carried out. On the contrary, it means only that the behavior conforms to, or is in line with, these principles and that the agent is disposed to cite or at least to allude to them if called upon to explain his behavior. Thus, if a man calculates out loud, thenassuming that this calculation is done in accordance with principles in the above sensethere is no need to introduce any further thought episodes to account for the fact that he arrives at a certain conclusion or resolution; the steps that led him to the conclusion or resolution are already laid bare. If the calculation shows intelligence or ingenuity, it does so by virtue of the relations between the overt steps; going from a premise to a conclusion is not proved reasonable or unreasonable, rational or irrational, by reference to something other than the premise and the conclusion. When we have the premise and the conclusion, we have all we need to decide whether the inference was reasonable. Even if we were to allude to interior steps of reasoning in order to explain a man's actions, we would have to appraise those steps in light of the same principles. Therefore, it may, in fact, be said that purely overt calculation or deliberation is itself a process of thinking and that thinking is not something that is necessarily done silently in the soul. In other words, overt thinking is just as useful a mode of thinking as any other, and there is no need, even no point, in always hunting for hidden acts of thought.

criticism of ryle's approach

Although there is considerable plausibility to Ryle's approach, it must be granted that not all the calculation or deliberation that accounts for a man's actions is done out loud or on paper. In fact, nothing is more obvious than the fact that a good share of one's calculation is not done overtly and that reference to silent thought is constantly and legitimately made in order to account for activities that would otherwise remain inexplicable. Thus, a man may make a move in chess after sitting in silent anguish for long minutes at the board; and the intelligence of this move will remain a stubborn question mark until, perhaps after the game, he outlines the strategy behind it. The same is true in countless other cases. On being asked a question, the mathematics student may close his eyes for a minute before giving the answer, and when the answer is given, he can usually follow it with a proof, a line of reasoning he will claim to recall having thought out in foro interno.

Ryle was, of course, aware of these cases in The Concept of Mind, and he attempted to account for them by arguing that a man can learn to mutter to himself as well as mutter out loud. Thus, when pressed, Ryle could not entirely dispense with the traditional conception of covert thinking; in regarding it as "inner speech" he was, in fact, squarely in the tradition of Hobbes, and his view is thus subject to the same fundamental difficultynamely, that to most it seems plainly false that inner speech occurs whenever one can correctly be said to think in foro interno.

The Analogy Theory

Although Ryle's view of thinking does not, as a whole, succeed, in the opinion of the present writer it does come close to the truth. For while silent thought need not be inner speech, it may still be an activity that is at least formally analogous to speech. In what sense "formally analogous"? In the sense in which chess played with pennies and nickels is formally analogous to chess played with standard pieces or in which the Frenchman's "Il pleut" is formally analogous to the Englishman's "It is raining": the same basic moves are made, but the empirical features of the activities are different. Thus, while the thought p is empirically different from the act of saying that p (in that the former need not even involve verbal imagery), it may still be regarded as formally the same: Both are activities that conform to the same principles and have many of the same implications. This sort of formal identity among empirically different activities is, of course, hard to state clearly, but at least an intuitive sense of what is meant by speaking of such an identity can be conveyed by the following analogy. Saying that p is a formal analogue of thinking that p in the way that playing "Texas chess" (with automobiles on certain counties) is a formal analogue of playing ordinary chess (with ivory pieces on checkered boards). What is essential in both cases is that formally analogous activities are carried on in accordance with the same basic principlesthe principles or rules of chess, on one hand, and various principles of inference and relevance, on the other.

This theory of thinking, which may be called the analogy theory, does more than merely correct the shortcomings of Ryle's view. It also seems to account for all of the distinctive features of conceptual thinking that were mentioned earlier. Since it also appears to possess none of the drawbacks of traditional theories, it is perhaps the most satisfactory account of thinking yet developed by philosophers.

See also Being; Empiricism; Intention; Universals, A Historical Survey.


contemporary discussions

Alston, William P. "The Role of Reason in the Regulation of Belief." In Rationality in the Calvinian Tradition, edited by N. Wolterstorff et al. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.

Bealer, George. "A Theory of Concepts and Concept Possession." Proceedings of the Tenth Annual SOFIA Conference, edited by Enrique Villanueva. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Press.

Bergmann, Gustav. "Intentionality." In Meaning and Existence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

Chisholm, Roderick. "Sentences about Believing." PAS 56 (19551956): 125148.

Chisholm, Roderick, and Wilfrid Sellars. "Intentionality and the Mental." In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. II, edited by Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958.

Davidson, Donald. "What Thought Requires." In The Foundations of Cognitive Science, edited by Joao Branquinho. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

Gibbard, Allan. "Thoughts and Norms." Nous Supplement 13 (2003): 8398.

Ginnane, W. J. "Thoughts." Mind 49 (1960): 372390.

Hampshire, Stuart. Thought and Action. London: Chatto and Windus, 1959.

Harman, Gilbert. Change in View: Principle of Reasoning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Harman, Gilbert. Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Jeffrey, Richard. The Logic of Decision. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Kenny, Anthony. Action, Emotion, and Will. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.

Lehrer, Keith. Metamind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Price, H. H. Thinking and Experience. 2nd ed. London: Hutchinson, 1969. An extremely valuable discussion of traditional theories of thinking.

Quine, W. V. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 1949.

Skyrms, Brian. The Dynamics of Rational Deliberation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Stalnaker, Robert C. Inquiry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

Stein, Edward. Without Good Reason: The Rationality Debate in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Strawson, P. F. Individuals. London: Methuen, 1959.

Whorf, B. J. Language, Thought, and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956.

traditional theories

Detailed information on traditional theories may be found in F. C. Copleston, A History of Philosophy. 7 vols. (New York, 1959). Specific reference may be made, however, to the following classics, which are published in numerous editions: Aristotle, De Anima and Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5; George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, introduction; René Descartes, Meditations and Principles of Philosophy ; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Ch. 5, and Elements of Philosophy, Chs. 23; David Hume, Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Secs. 24, and Treatise of Human Nature, Secs. 14; Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason ; G. W. Leibniz, Leibniz Selections, edited by P. P. Wiener (New York, 1951); John Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chs. 1, 2, 7, 8; Plato, Phaedo, Republic, Sophist, and Theaetetus.

psychological studies

Bartlett, F. C. Thinking. London: Allen and Unwin, 1953.

Bruner, J. S., J. J. Goodnow, and G. A. Austin. A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley, 1956.

the analogy theory

Aune, Bruce. Knowledge, Mind, and Nature: An Introduction to Theory of Knowledge and the Philosophy of Mind. New York: Random House, 1967. Ch. 8.

Aune, Bruce. "On Thought and Feeling." Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1963): 112.

Geach, Peter. Mental Acts. London, 1957.

Sellars, Wilfrid. "Physical Realism." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 15 (1954): 1332. An illuminating discussion of conceptualism and recent Platonism.

Sellars, Wilfrid. Science, Perception, and Reality. London, 1964.

Bruce Aune (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)


views updated Jun 08 2018


Thought may be defined in general as mental activity, conscious or unconscious, based on the various modes of representation, including the most archaic. More narrowly, the meaning of thought may be confined to ideational activity, dependent on the faculty of judgment and on the faculty that brings into conjunction images of things and images of words. The discussion here will be restricted to the narrower conception of thought as ideational activity, but always bear in mind that the narrower meaning is deeply rooted in the more general one.

Freud approached ideational thought from three different angles, which did not necessarily overlap. The first was the "psychological" approach, as outlined in the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]) and further developed in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911b), and "Negation" (1925h). In this perspective, Freud analyzed the thought process in relation to perception, language, memory traces, and action, for which, in Freud's view, thought was a substitute. The second approach, a "genetic" one, was a response, in essence, to the question of the origins of thought as a search for knowledge. This line of enquiry was concerned primarily with the child's urge to find things out and sought the libidinal origins of this drive and the circumstances that set it in motion. The four main Freudian works pertinent here are Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1908c), the case history of "little Hans" (1909b), and the analysis of Leonardo da Vinci (1910c), which situate thought activity relative to the instinctual realm and describe the various fates for which thoughts may be destined: inhibition, obsessive intellectualization, or sublimation. Freud's third approach to thought was an original way of looking, not at the actual activity of thought, but at what is expected of it. This was the "anthropological" approach, to be found notably in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a), which developed the concepts of magical thought and animistic thought in relation to thought activity during childhood and in pathology.

In the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), Freud argued that thought processes are provoked by dissonance between a memory imprinted by a wish and a cathexis that seems to belong to the wish. When the two do not coincide, a biological signal triggers thought; when they do, another signal terminates such activity and precipitates a discharge (action). Sixteen years later, in "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911b), Freud proposed a similar account of the act of judgment, which "had to decide whether a given idea was true or falsethat is, whether it was in agreement with reality or notthe decision being determined by making a comparison with the memory-traces of reality" (p. 221). Already in the "Project for a Scientific Psychology," he had stressed that it was possible for judgment to have no objective beyond itself, such as mnemonic activity, which is self-sufficient, or the examination of new perceptual elements. In Freud's theory, the role of judgment is in fact circumscribed both by recollection and by investigation.

In "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning," Freud defined thought as an activity that enabled the psychic apparatus to postpone discharge (action) when it would be inappropriate, and that brought together the impressions left by objects ("presentations") and their linguistic designators (words). Freud also set off a "species of thought-activity . . . kept free from reality-testing and . . . subordinated to the pleasure principle alone," namely fantasizing, which began with children's play and survived in daydreams (1911b, p. 222). Here Freud was broadening the concept of thought in a way also met with in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), where Freud divided the notion of "dream-thoughts" into "essential dream-thoughts" (the dream itself, uncensored) and "latent dream thoughts." The latter comprise the much broader set of thoughts originating in the multiple channels linking the latent to the manifest and of associations arising from contiguity and resemblance and produced during the work of interpretation. Even though an intellectual activity, such as calculation or deduction, may appear in a dream, "an act of judgment in a dream is only a repetition of some prototype in the dream-thoughts," a repetition that may be "so neatly employed that to begin with it may give the impression of independent intellectual activity in the dream" (1900a, p. 459).

Whereas the psychological approach offered a description of thought activity, the genetic approach raised an entirely different question: What makes us think? The question calls for identifying causes sufficient to account for the large quantities of libidinal energy devoted to thought activity. Freud posited an "instinct for knowledge or research" (1905d, p. 194). This independent and atypical instinct was not bound to any erogenous zone but drew pleasure from other so-called component instincts, namely the instinct to see and the instinct for mastery. Freud needed the difficult concept of sublimation here to explain this diversion of the instinct's aim and the change of its object. As early as the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), Freud had pointed up the importance of the visual function for understanding. He stressed it even more in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, who famously observed that the eyes are "the window to the soul." Freud's logical progression from the desire to look (Schaulust ) to the instinct for knowledge (Wisstrieb ) was based primarily on the fact that the wish to see was not satisfied with contemplating or even scrutinizing, but strove to compare. The perception of difference and the comparison of several variants of what is recognized as the same thing are steps toward the abstraction that enables us to think and classify.

According to Freud, the instinct for knowledge is awakened when children become interested in birtha practical interest aimed at coping with the arrival of younger siblings (1908c). This curiosity, not satisfied by the parents' answers, leads the child to engage in intense theorizing and to devise answers, sometimes the classical ones, sometimes not, to unanswered questions. This theorizing is associated with masturbation and, like it, remains unfulfilled. Freud considered this lack of fulfillment as one of the sources of intellectual inhibition.

In his write-up of the case of "little Hans" (1909b), his write-up of the case of the "Wolf Man" (1918b [1914]), and his analysis of Leonardo da Vinci (1910c), Freud explores the fate of this instinct for knowledge, which may either fall prey to inhibition, in tandem with a violent surge of sexual repression, or overcome inhibitory forces and re-emerge from the depths of the unconscious in the form of an obsessive thought. Or again, in the "rarest and most perfect" cases, the instinct may escape both fates: "The libido evades the fate of repression by being sublimated from the very beginning into curiosity and by becoming attached to the powerful instinct for research as a reinforcement" (1910c, p. 80).

Melanie Klein continued this line of investigation by developing the notion of an epistemophilic instinct, a very early curiosity concerning the inside of the mother's body and the babies presumably found there. Beginning with a consideration of the sadistic and destructive dimension of this curiosity, she pointed out that one of the sources of intellectual inhibition was the inability to obtain clarity of thought because of anxiety over what might be found (Klein, 1931).

After its fashion, Freud's third approach to thought, the anthropological approach, also addressed the question of the origin of the human desire to know. Freud felt that primitive thought was characterized by a belief in the "omnipotence of thoughts," a term that he had originally used in connection with an obsessional neurotic, the "Rat Man" (1909d, pp. 233-235), and that denoted an overestimation of the power of thought, resulting in things being erased by their representations. In such cases, intellectual processes are strongly sexualized, and this formed the basis of the belief in the omnipotence of ideas, which led primitive man to attempt to control the world with magic (1912-1913a, p. 89).

But if Freud believed that the question of the origin of life sparked the instinct for knowledge in children, by contrast, "the survivors' position in relation to the dead first caused primitive man to reflect" (1912-1913a, p. 93). He added, however, that this was not a purely intellectual problem, but rather an emotional conflict that had to be resolved. For children, just as for primitive humans, Freud thus rejected the notion of a primary need for causality; practical ends always predominate: "It is not to be supposed that men were inspired to create their first system of the universe by pure speculative curiosity. The practical need for controlling the world around them must have played its part" (1912-1913a, p. 78).

Whether Freud is concerned with the connection between the thought of the obsessive neurotic and that of primitive people, or with how the philosopher resembles the schizophrenic in mistaking words for things, his wide-ranging reflections on thought and its origins raise a multitude of issues, including that of psychoanalytic thought itself. For, as Freud himself wrote, "When we think in abstractions, there is a danger that we may neglect the relations of words to unconscious thing-presentations, and it must be confessed that the expression and content of our philosophizing then begins to acquire an unwelcome resemblance to the mode of operation of schizophrenics" (1915e, p. 204).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Action-thought (H. Kohut); Alpha-elements; Animistic (thought); Certainty; Civilization (Kultur ); "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Concept; Contradiction; Doubt; Hermeneutics; Ideology; Intellectualization; Jokes; Logic(s); Magical thinking; Need for causality; Omnipotence of thought; Operational thinking; Philosophy and psychoanalysis; Pleasure in thinking; Psychic energy; Rationalization; Sense/nonsense; Symbolism; Telepathy; Thought identity; Thought-thinking apparatus; Unconscious concept; Working-through.


Anzieu, Didier. (1994). Le penser: Du moi-peau au moi-pensant. Paris: Dunod.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1908c). On the sexual theories of children. SE, 9: 205-226.

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.

. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.

. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.

Klein, Melanie. (1931). A contribution to the theory of intellectual inhibition. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 12, 206-218.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1992). Le plaisir de pensée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


views updated May 21 2018

393. Thinking


the process of separating a whole into its parts to discover their function, relationship, etc. See also 250. LOGIC ; 334. PSYCHOLOGY .
loss or absence of the capacity to express thoughts or ideas by written, spoken, or gesticulated means.
1. the act of meditation or contemplation.
2. the faculty of thinking.
3. a thought; a design or plan. cogitator , n. cogitative , adj.
relating to the operation of the mind through logical rather than intuitive thought processes; intellectual activity.
the capacity for, process of, or result of discursive thinking. dianoetic, adj.
the act of digressing; wandering off the subject.
the process of deducing or inferring. eductive, adj.
1. the state of having wandering and imaginative thoughts in order to escape from reality. escapist, n., adj.
2. the practice of engaging in activities that enable one to avoid having to deal with reality, as the persistent attendance at science-fiction films, reading of fantasy literature, etc.
1. excessive concern for facts.
2. a theory or belief relying heavily on fact. factualist , n. factualistic , adj.
free association
Psychoanalysis. the unhampered and uncensored expression of ideas, impressions, etc., passing through the mind of the patiënt, used to permit access to the processes of the unconscious.
hyponoia, hyponea
a state of dulled mental activity or decrease in the function of thought. Also called hypopsychosis .
the process of forming ideas. ideational, adj.
the process of inferring or deducing; also, that which is inferred or deduced. illative, adj.
things or matters beyond measure or comprehension.
the process of searching or inquiring; an investigation, especially of an intellectual nature. indagator , n. indagative , adj.
the state of being narrow-minded.
1. the exercise or use of the intellect.
2. a particular act or process of the intellect.
1. understanding solely through the intellect.
2. thinking. noetic, adj.
the science of the laws of the mind. nomologist , n. nomological , adj.
the process of darkening or obscuring so as to hinder ready analysis.
a system of mental development exercises.
Obsolete, consideration; careful thought over a matter.
1. the rational inquiry into the principles and truths of being, nature, knowledge, conduct, etc.
2. an individual set or system of principles and beliefs. philosopher, n. philosophic, philosophical, adj.
a mania for thinking.
an abnormal fear of thinking.
a state of doubt or uncertainty, especially with regard to the choice of alternatives; a dilemma.
the process of logical reasoning or rational thought. ratiocinative , adj.
the conversion of an abstract concept into something concrete; a viewing of the abstract as concrete.
the act of pondering or meditating. ruminator , n. ruminative , adj.
1. the contemplation or consideration of some subject.
2. an instance of such activity.
3. a conclusion or opinion reached by such activity.
4. a conjecture or surmise; a guess. speculator, n. speculative, adj.
the excessive use of speculation.
the process of deductive reasoning, as from cause to effect, from the simple elements to the complex whole, etc. See also 230. JOINING . synthesist , n. synthetic , synthetical, adj.
the principles or practice of synthesis or synthetic methods or techniques.
abnormally rapid mental activity.
Rare. the art of reasoning; logic.


views updated May 23 2018

thought1 / [unvoicedth]ôt/ • n. 1. an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in the mind: Maggie had a sudden thought I asked him if he had any thoughts on how it had happened Mrs. Oliver's first thought was to get help. ∎  an idea or mental picture, imagined and contemplated: the mere thought of Peter with Nicole made her see red. ∎  (one's thoughts) one's mind or attention: he's very much in our thoughts and prayers. ∎  an act of considering or remembering someone or something: she hadn't given a thought to Max for some time. ∎  (usu. thought of) an intention, hope, or idea of doing or receiving something: he had given up all thoughts of making Manhattan his home.2. the action or process of thinking: Sophie sat deep in thought. ∎  the formation of opinions, esp. as a philosophy or system of ideas, or the opinions so formed: the freedom of thought and action the traditions of Western thought. ∎  careful consideration or attention: I haven't given it much thought. ∎  concern for another's well-being or convenience: he is carrying on the life of a single man, with no thought for me.PHRASES: don't give it another thought inf. used to tell someone not to worry when they have apologized for's the thought that counts inf. used to indicate that it is the kindness behind an act that matters, however imperfect or insignificant the act may be.a second thought more than the slightest consideration: not one of them gave a second thought to the risks involved.take thought dated reflect or consider.that's a thought! inf. used to express approval of a comment or suggestion.thought2 • past and past participle of think.


views updated Jun 27 2018

think·ing / ˈ[unvoicedth]ingking/ • adj. using thought or rational judgment; intelligent: he seemed to be a thinking man.• n. the process of using one's mind to consider or reason about something: they have done some thinking about welfare reform. ∎  a person's ideas or opinions: his thinking is reflected in his later autobiography. ∎  (thinkings) archaic thoughts; meditations.PHRASES: good (or nice) thinking used as an expression of approval for an ingenious plan, explanation, or observation.put on one's thinking cap inf. meditate on a problem.


views updated May 29 2018

thought it's the thought that counts used to indicate that it is the kindness behind an act that matters, however imperfect or insignificant the act may be.
thought is free proverbial saying, late 14th century; meaning that while speech and action can be limited, one's powers of imagination and speculation cannot be regulated.

See also first thoughts are best, perish the thought, the wish is father to the thought.


views updated May 29 2018

thought action or act of thinking; †anxiety, solicitude XIII; very small amount XVI. repr. OE. þōht and the more freq. ġeþōht = OS. githāht (Du. gedachte), OHG. gidāht :- Gmc. *ʒaþaŋχt-, f. *þaŋkjan THINK.