Cognitive experiential self theory

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The cognitive exponential self theory characterizes two distinct systems that individuals utilize to process information. At some times, roughly speaking, individuals consider issues rationally, systematically, logically, deliberately, effortfully, and verbally. On other occasions, individuals consider issues intuitively, effortlessly, globally, and emotionally. This simple framework can explain some interesting findings, such as the discovery that depressed individuals are superior on some cognitive tasks, especially when few incentives are offered (e.g., Pacini, Muir, & Epstein, 1998)

Description of the theory

According to cognitive exponential theory, promulgated by Epstein (1983, 1990, 1991), individuals can utilize two systems to process information. The first or experiential system relies on experience and intuition. In particular, individuals consider issues intuitively and effortlessly. Rather than reflect upon the various considerations in sequence, individuals form a global impression of issues. In addition, rather than apply logical rules or symbolic codes, such as words or numbers, individuals consider vivid representations of objects or events. These representations are laden with the emotions, details, features, and sensations that correspond to the objects or events. Finally, learning is equated to ascertain associations from direct experiences.

The second or cognitive system, in contrast, relies on logic and rationality. In particular, individuals analyze issues with effort, logic, and deliberation rather than rely on intuition. To decide upon issues, they rely on logical rules and symbolic codes. The context--that is, the details, features, and emotions-that correspond to objects or events are disregarded. To facilitate learning in this system, individuals learn the rules of reasoning that are promulgated in society.

Properties of the cognitive and experiential systems

Epstein (2003) delineated a series of properties that differentiate the cognitive and experiential systems. First, the cognitive system is analytical, exploring the various facets or features of some object, person, or event. The experiential system is holistic, exploring more global patterns. Second, the cognitive system, which analyzes features separately, thus processes information slowly and gradually. The experiential system is more rapid, oriented towards ongoing actions rather than future possibilities.

Third, the cognitive system utilizes symbols, word, and numbers to represent objects or events. The experiential system alludes to images, metaphors, and narratives instead. Fourth, because of this reliance on symbols, words, and numbers, the cognitive system applies systems of logic and reason to reach decisions-in which the causes and effects are considered systematically and consciously. When the experiential system is activated, affective preferences or intuitions, derived from associations, guide decisions. The logic and principles, applied by the cognitive system, generalize across all contexts.

Fifth, the cognitive system demands effort and concentration, in which thoughts are controlled deliberately. The experiential system is effortless and automatic in which emotions are evoked inadvertently.

Sixth, because the cognitive system utilizes symbols and words, concepts can be finely differentiated and preferences can change dramatically in response to solid arguments. The experiential system does not differentiate concepts as subtly and preferences evolve gradually with experience.

The neurological underpinnings of each system

In essence, the emotional system is partly underpinned by the limbic system, especially the amygdala and anterior cingulate. The cognitive system is primarily underpinned by the prefrontal cortex (see Panksepp, 2004).

Related definitions

Hodgkinson, Langan-Fox, and Sadler-Smith (2008) systematically analyzed the key features or properties of intuition, a concept that overlaps with the experiential system. Overall, past researchers argue that intuition is usually tacit knowledge, inaccessible to conscious awareness, that underpins sudden insights and strong hunches. Intuition integrates all the remote and disparate features of a problem to generate a coherent, holistic impression that is then translated to conscious consideration. This impression or hunch is often a feeling of knowing, but without explicit justification.

Consequences of rational versus experiential processing


According to this theory, the cognitive and experiential systems are most effective in different contexts. The two systems can operate simultaneously or sequentially. Nevertheless, as Novak and Hoffman (2009) demonstrated, the cognitive system tends to prevail when individuals undertake abstract or verbal tasks-that is, activities that demand the application of generic principles, the manipulation of symbols, or the deliberation over words. In contrast, the experiential system tends to prevail when individuals undertake activities that demand creativity or subjective evaluations.

To demonstrate, in a series of studies, conducted by Novak and Hoffman (2009), participants undertook a series of activities. After each activity, they completed a questionnaire that was designed to assess whether the cognitive or experiential system was activated. Questions such as "I reasoned things out carefully" or "I tackled this task systematically" represented the cognitive system, whereas questions such as "I used my gut feelings" and "I had flashes of insight" represented the experiential system.

The cognitive system was invoked when the tasks involved abstract thinking, such as Raven's progressive matrices, or verbal thinking, such as analogies like "Sea is to water as forest is to what?". Furthermore, the cognitive system was activated when participants needed to reflect upon how to improve the utility, rather than enjoyment, of some IT system (Novak & Hoffman, 2009).

The experiential system, in contrast, was invoked, when the tasks involved creativity or associations. That is, this system was preferred when participants needed to identify some changes that could be introduced to improve some toy, to uncover words that could complete some phrase, or to construct sentences from sets of four words. Furthermore, the experiential system prevailed when participants needed to deliberate over how to improve the enjoyment--instead of the utility--of some IT system (Novak & Hoffman, 2009). Finally, the experiential system may enable individuals to differentiate subtle differences between people and contexts (Epstein, 1994).

The utility of each system also varies across contexts. Specifically, performance on abstract or verbal tasks was more effective when individuals utilized the cognitive, rather than experiential, system. In contrast, performance on creative activities improved when the experiential system prevailed (Novak & Hoffman, 2009).

Furthermore, if people report an experiential style, they perform especially well on tasks that gauge creativity, humor, aesthetic judgment, and intuition (Norris & Epstein, 2011). They can, for example, identify more creative uses of common objects. They could more readily determine which of several punch lines for a joke would be the most applicable. They are also more inclined to prefer asymmetric designs.

Susceptibility to persuasion

When the cognitive system is primed, individuals process cognitive information more readily. For example, messages that begin with the phrase "I think..." are processed efficiently. Hence, these messages seem more fluent. This sense of fluency increases the likelihood that individuals will believe these messages (for mechanisms, see fluency and the hedonic marker hypothesis).

In contrast, when the experiential system is primed, individuals process affective or emotional information more readily. To illustrates, messages that begin with the phrase "I feel.." are processed efficiently. Hence, these messages seem more fluent. This sense of fluency again increases the likelihood that individuals will believe these messages.

Mayer and Tormala (2010) conducted three studies that validate this account. In one study, participants first read an essay that was intended to prime an orientation towards affective or cognitive information. To prime an orientation to affective information, the essay described the negative emotions that people sometimes experience, in vivid details, when they donate blood. To prime an orientation to cognitive information, the essay described unfortunate statistics about blood donations, such as the number of people who donate only once.

Next, participants read an essay that argued the merits of donating blood. For some participants, the essay was entitled "My feelings about blood donations" and began with the phase "I feel". For other participants, the essay was entitled "My thoughts about blood donations" and began with the phrase "I think"; otherwise, the essays were the same in both conditions.

Finally, participants completed a series of measures that were intended to ascertain the effect of this essay. Some of the questions assessed their attitudes to blood donation. Other questions assessed whether or not they felt the message was easy to comprehend, to assess fluency.

As predicted, if an orientation to affective information had been primed, individuals processed the essay that began with "I feel" rather than "I think" more fluently. Conversely, if an orientation to cognitive information had been primed, individuals processed the essay that began with "I think" more fluently. Fluency then translated to more favorable attitudes towards blood donations.

In another study, when a procedure was used to measure, rather than manipulate, whether cognitive or affective information was primed, the same pattern of observations were observed. In particular, participants rated their attitudes towards blood donations on five affective dimensions, such as pleasant versus unpleasant and on five cognitive dimensions, such as useful versus useless, all on a scale that ranges from 1 to 9. If the responses deviated appreciably from the midpoint 5 on the affective dimensions, affective information was assumed to be primed. If the responses deviated appreciably from the midpoint 5 on the cognitive dimensions, cognitive information was assumed to be primed . When affective, rather than cognitive, dimensions were primed, participants were more persuaded by messages that refer to feelings rather than thoughts. Furthermore, in general, men were more persuaded by messages that allude to thoughts and women were more persuaded by messages that allude to feelings.

The ratio bias

Pacini and Epstein (1999) showed that rational thinking can facilitate decision making on some games of chance, whereas experiential thinking was unrelated to performance. In this task, called the ration bias paradigm, two trays, one large and one small, contained mixtures of red and white jelly beans. The small tray always contained 9 white and 1 red jelly bean. The large tray always contained 100 jelly beans, 10, 9 or 7 of which were white--the precise number varying across the 12 trials. In another set of 4 trials, the small tray contained either 50% or 40% of red jelly beans and the large tray contained wither 40% or 50%.

The task of participants was to select one of the two trays each time. The experimenter then randomly chose one jelly bean from the tray. The amount of money that participants won depended on whether the jelly bean was red or white.

To optimize performance, individuals should choose the tray with the highest proportion of reds, whenever red jelly beans attract a higher amount than wihe jelly beans. However, because of the numerosity bias (Hasher & Zacks, 1979; Pelham & Neter, 1995), individuals do not always select the optimal tray. In particular, individuals sometimes confuse the frequency of some event, such as the number of red jelly beans, with the percentage of some event. As a consequence, they often choose a tray with more red jelly beans, even if the percentage of this color is marginally lower.

Individuals who often engage in rational thinking were more likely to select the suitable tray and thus perform effectively. This benefit of rational thinking was especially pronounced when the incentive to perform well was elevated, because the stakes were raised.

Sensitivity to justice

When individuals adopt an experiential mode, instead of a rational mode, they feel more inclined to seek retribution after they observe an injustice towards someone else (Skarlicki & Rupp, 2010). Specifically, according to the deontic model of justice (e.g., Cropanzano, Goldman, & Folger, 2003; Folger, 2001), humans have evolved to feel negative emotions in response to violations of social norms and regulations. These negative emotions then prompt some form of retribution, such as criticism and exile. This set of processes facilitates the survival of communities in which coordination is vital, such as human societies.

An experiential mode tends to increase the sensitivity of individuals to their emotional states and, thus, amplifies this punitive response to perceived injustices. To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Skarlicki and Rupp (2010), participants read a scenario about a person who had applied to manage a specific role. Only when he later read a company memo did he discover that someone else was instead granted this role.

Interpersonal and information unfairness was then manipulated. That is, the supervisor of this employee later communicated this decision either harshly, discourteously, without any lucid rationale, or apologetically, courteously, with a compelling explanation. Furthermore, participants were encouraged either to trust their intuition or to appraise the situation rationally and carefully (for a similar manipulation, see Zhong, 2007).

Finally, the extent to which participants felt the need to engage in retribution, even though someone else was the victim, was assessed. They were asked the degree to which they warn other people the supervisor was unfair, sign a letter that undermines this supervisor, or a lodge a complaint themselves. Individuals were more willing to engage in this activity if the supervisor had acted unfairly rather than fairly, particularly if an experiential mode had been induced. Interestingly, if participants had also reported that moral identity was a key part of their identity, this effect of experiential versus rational processing diminished. From a practical perspective, if managers want to inspire employees to redress some injustice in society, references to emotions and intuition as well as their moral identity may be constructive.

Factors that determine whether the cognitive or experiential system will be activated

Experimental protocols

A variety of procedures can be applied to activate the cognitive rather than experiential system. Hazy rather than vivid images, for example, seem to elicit the cognitive system (Lee, Amir, & Ariely, 2009) Similarly, after participants reflect upon two occasions in which they trusted their feelings, a reliance on experiential processes increases. In contrast, after participants attempt to reflect upon ten occasions in which they trusted their feelings--a difficult task, which might challenge this trust in feelings--the cognitive system prevails (Lee, Amir, & Ariely, 2009). Furthermore, when individuals need to memorize long sequences, the cognitive system prevails (Lee, Amir, & Ariely, 2009).

Folk beliefs about the merits and drawbacks of each system

In Western society, individuals often assume the cognitive system is more rational and the emotional or experiential system is more irrational. In one study, for example, a set of PhD students rated the extent to which they perceive a set of behaviors, such as planning or self control, as rational or irrational. Other PhD students rated the degree to which the same behaviors are cognitive or emotional. In general, behaviors that were perceived as rational were also regarded as cognitive--indeed the correlation was .95 (cited by Lee, Amir, & Ariely, 2009). Nevertheless, the correlation that would have emerged had the word experiential replaced emotional was not determined.

The experiential system is relatively automatic, unfettered by the need to invest effort. As a consequence, this system tends to dominate (Epstein, 1990). Although automatic, the experiential system amplifies imprecision, bias, and distortion--which the cognitive system is designed to minimize or offset (Epstein, 1990). Individuals, therefore, tend to switch between these systems to optimize behavior (see also Berzonsky, 2004).

Because the experiential system is automatic, this mode is asumed to be closely related to the self. That is, when individuals feel a sense of choice--a sensation that represents the self--they tend to engage in acts that are more natural, instinctive, or automatic, which are all properties of the experiential system. This association between the experiential system and the self is emphasized in the name of this framework--the cognitive experiential self theory.

Sometimes, however, individuals do engage in experiential or intuitive processes when rational principles would be more applicable. In one study, for example, participants completed a task that entailed mathematical operations. They were granted the option to trust their intuition or to apply some statistical rule. The pay they would receive depended on the accuracy of their responses. Interestingly, many participants lost money because they invoked their intuition and neglected the statistical rule (Yaniv & Hogarth, 1993). Conceivably, individuals feel they relinquish a sense of control when they apply these rules (Hogarth, 2001).

Other beliefs

Pacini and Epstein (1999) also examined whether or not beliefs are related to inclinations to engage in rational or experiential processing. Specifically, participants completed the Basic Beliefs Inventory (Catlin & Epstein, 1992), which gauges te extent to which individuals perceive the world as benign rather than malevolent, society as meaningful rather than chaotic, relationship as supportive or threatening, and themselves as worthy or unworthy.

Sample items include "In general, the good things in my personal world outnumber the bad", "The world has not been good to me,", "I usually expect things to work out well", "I have little hope for the future", "I have clear-cut and interesting life goals", "I don't know what I want out of life", "I feel I'm pretty much in control of my own destiny", "Life's so unpredictable that I seldom make plans,", "I am able to establish warm, meaningful relations with others", "I find it a burden to interact with people,", "I usually feel really good about myself", and "I often feel that my faults outnumber my strengths".

Individuals who often, rather than seldom, engage in rational thinking tend to perceive the world as benign and themselves as worthy. Individuals who often engage in experiential thinking perceive their relationships as favorable.

Relative dominance of these systems


According to Hogarth (2001), individuals are more inclined to apply their intuition, which represents experiential thinking, if they can imagine some problem or issue visually--a proposition referred to as the visualization hypothesis. Factors that enhance the capacity of individuals to visualize or to imagine some problem, therefore, often evoke experiential thinking. Indeed, individuals who often invoke visual images to resolve problems might be inclined to utilize their intuition.

To illustrate, suppose that patrons of a bar must be over 21 to consume alcohol. In addition, suppose four individuals are seated at the bar: the first person is drinking alcohol, the second person is drinking Coke; the third person is 25; and the fourth person is 16. Which of these individuals should you investigate to decide whether the age regulation has been breached?

Typically, individuals can answer this question correctly (Gigerenzer & Hug, 1992). They would investigate the person who is drinking alcohol and the person who is 16.

Nevertheless, when the same problem is represented as abstract concepts, rather than images that can be visualized, the proportion of correct responses dissipates. To illustrate, suppose you are informed that cards with vowels on one side display an even number on the other side. Four cards are presented: a card with an A, B, 4, and 7. Which of these cards should be turned over to ascertain whether the rule has been violated, called the Wason selection task. The answer is A and 7--equivalent to the person drinking alcohol and the 16 year old. Nevertheless, many individuals do not answer this question correctly.

Conceivably, when the problem is represented as abstract concepts, the visual images are not as vivid. According to the visualization hypotheses, intuitive processes are less likely to be elicited, which could compromise performance on this task.

Nevertheless, Hogarth (2001) has conceded that alternative explanations of these findings have been proposed. Conceivably, familiarity might activate some adaptive mental processes. In addition, problems that are germane to issues experienced during evolution are resolved more effectively; abstract symbols are not as relevant to these evolutionary events (see Cosmides, 1989; Gigerenzer & Hug, 1992).

References to the heart instead of the head

References to the heart instead of the head, such as pointing to the chest, increase the likelihood that people will depend on emotions, rather than rational deliberation, to reach decisions (Fetterman & Robinson, 2013). That is, people tend to associate the heart with emotions. Therefore, movements or thoughts that prime the heart increase reliance on emotions (for the rationale, see embodied mode of cognition).

For example, in the first study, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they associate themselves with the heart or with the head. Next, participants completed a series of measures that relate to the degree to which they depend on emotions when they reach decisions. For example, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they experience intense emotions as well as the degree to which they perceive themselves as feminine, affectionate, and intimate--attributes that are perceived as more emotional. As hypothesized, people who associated themselves with the heart were more likely to experience intense emotions and perceive themselves as feminine, affectionate, and intimate.

Subsequent studies demonstrated a similar pattern of results. For example, the second study showed that people who associate themselves with the heart are more likely to direct attention to their emotions, more experiential in their thinking, as well as less rational, even after controlling openness to experience. The third study showed these people tend to perceive themselves as warmer than participants who associated themselves with their head. The fourth study showed that people who associate themselves with their head performed better on general knowledge questions and at university, consistent with a rational mindset.

Other studies showed the association with the head or heart affects actual decisions. For instance, the fifth study examined whether association with the heart or head affects moral decision making. Participants imagined their son is about to be hanged. They were told they must pull the chair away. If they refuse, another child will be killed as well, but their son will still be hanged. If people associated themselves with their heart, they were more inclined to reach a decision that reflects strong emotions rather than rational analysis: They were more inclined to refuse to pull the chair.

Finally, in one study, the degree to which people associate themselves with their heart or head was manipulated. Participants were asked to place their dominant hand on their head or chest, purportedly to examine their dexterity with their non-dominant hand. If participants pointed to their chest, they were more likely to depend on emotions when reaching moral decisions and not as likely to be as rational.


Pacini, Muir, and Epstein (1998) showed that depressed individuals are more inclined to apply rational processes, perhaps to compensate for some maladaptive properties of their experiential system. In particular, in their study, individuals who reported subclinical depression and individuals who reported negligible symtoms of depression completed the ratio-bias paradigm with low or high incentives. Exemplary performance on this task is assumed to reflect rational processing.

When incentives were elevated, both sets of participants performed proficiently. In contrast, when incentives were minimal, only the depressed participants performed well, manifesting rational processes.

This finding implies that depressed individuals often engage in rational, cognitive processes, even when the incentives are trivial. To explain this finding, Pacini, Muir, and Epstein (1998) argued that depressed individuals have developed a maladaptive experiential system. That is, their needs and goals are often unfulfilled, evoking pessimistic beliefs and compromising relationships. Because they anticipate the possibility they might act inappropriately, they feel the need to suppress their experiential system and instead invoke their rational system, in a broad variety of circumstances.

Arguably, people feel their intuition is more reflective of themselves--of their true values and preferences. In general, depressed individuals often perceive themselves unfavorably. Consequently, they may perceive their intuition as undesirable as well. They feel the need to utilize the cognitive system instead.


Pacini and Epstein (1999) examined whether personality is related to the extent to which individuals engage in rational or experiential processing, as gauged by the Five factor model. Rational thinking was related to openness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. Experiential thinking was related to extraversion and agreeableness.

Experiential and rational styles also correlate with a range of other personality and social characteristics. For example, when experiential thinking is pronounced, individuals are more likely to exhibit empathy; they claim to feel angry, for instance, when someone is mistreated. They also perceive themselves as more popular. Note, in this study, experiential thinking entailed three distinct subscales: intuition, emotionality, and imagination (Norris & Epstein, 2011).

The dual processes of the experiential or intuitive system

According to De Neys (2012), the experiential or intuitive system can actually generate intuitions that are sensitive to both past associations or heuristics as well as normative logic. Whenever the intuitions that derive from heuristics diverge from the intuitions that derive from normative logic, individuals also intuit a sense of conflict or dissonance. This sense of conflict or dissonance implies that further deliberation may be needed. Therefore, when individuals experience this sense of conflict or dissonance, the cognitive system is more likely to be activated. /p>

To illustrate, suppose individuals are informed that "all vehicles have wheels" and "boats are vehicles". Is the conclusion "boats have wheels" correct. According to deductive logic, this conclusion is correct. According to previous associations with boats, this conclusion is incorrect.

As De Neys (2012) proposes, the experiential or intuitive system is actually sensitive to both the logic and the associations. This system, thus, detects a conflict. If the individuals are willing to dedicate effort to this task, the conflict may activate the cognitive system, which primarily applies the logic and thus generates the correct answer. If the individuals are unwilling to dedicate effort to this task, the conflict is not strong enough to activate the cognitive system. The intuitive system, therefore, are sometimes more sensitive to the associations than perhaps the logic and, hence, will sometimes evoke an incorrect answer. Accordingly, the intuitive system is activated by default, and the cognitive system is activated in response to some conflict or dissonance, detected by the intuitive system.

De Neys (2012) accrues many strands of evidence to support this premise. For example, when individuals complete problems in which the associations diverge from logic, autonomic arousal increases, presumably reflecting sensitivity to the conflict. The anterior cingulate cortex, a region that detects conflict and then redirects attention, is also more likely to be activated. Furthermore, confidence in the solution diminishes. All these changes unfold even when participants answer the question incorrectly and do not refer to the logical information explicitly when asked to describe their thoughts. Hence, the conflict seems to be processed intuitively and unconsciously rather than consciously and deliberately.

Individual differences

Although both of these systems afford key functions, individuals tend to demonstrate inclinations that seem relatively stable across time, as explored by Epstein, Pacini, Denes-Raj and Heier (1996). That is, some individuals rely heavily on the experiential system, deriving decisions from intuition, emotions, and stereotypes. They tend to endorse statements such as "I believe in trusting my hunches".

Some individuals, however, rely on the cognitive system, analyzing issues carefully and systematically. They tend to report high level of need for cognition, as gauged by the scale developed by Cacioppo, Petty, and Kao (1984).

Measures of these individuals differences

Epstein et al. (1996) formulated the RVEI, or rational versus experiential inventory, to reflect these individual differences. The RVEI comprises one scale that measures experiential processing, in which Cronbach's alpha approximates .84, and another also includes the need for cognition scale to measure cognitive processing (for updates, see Pacini & Epstein, 1999).

Consistent with the proposition that switching between these systems might be adaptive, individuals who reported elevated levels of both experiential and cognitive thinking were more likely to demonstrate identity achievement-a tendency to have previously reflected upon their faith, values, and beliefs before reaching some firm conclusions (Berzonsky, 2008). This period of exploration and subsequent commitment to a specific identity can be deemed as adaptive.

Novak and Hoffman (2009) also developed a measure of cognitive and experiential processing. This measure gauges the system that individuals utilized in a specific context. To assess whether the cognitive system was invoked, participants answered 10 questions, such as "I tackled this task systematically" and "I used clear rules". To assess whether the experiential system was invoked, participants also answered 10 questions, including "I used my instincts" and "I used free-association, where one idea leads to the next".

Coefficient alpha was .916 for the cognitive scale and .904 for the experiential scale. A factor analysis substantiated the proposition that each set of items represents a separate factor. Furthermore, to establish the validity of this scale, the cognitive system prevailed when the tasks involved abstract or verbal reasoning. The experiential system prevailed when the tasks involved creative thinking (Novak & Hoffman, 2009).

Other tests have been constructed to assess intuitive ability, such as the accumulated clues task (Bowers et al., 1990) and the Waterloo Gestalt Closure task (Bowers et al., 1990). In essence, these tests ascertain the capacity of individuals to infer correct assumptions from limited information.

Related theories

Many authors have formulated similar dichotomies. That is, the distinction between the cognitive and experiential system mirrors the difference between rule based and associative (Sloman 1996; Smith & DeCoster 2000), System 1 and System 2 (e.g., Kahneman 2003; Stanovich & West 1998, 2000), reflective and impulsive (Strack & Deutsch 2004), verbal and visual (Childers, Houston, & Heckler 1985), as well as discursive and imagery (MacInnis & Price, 1987) processing (for a review, see Chaiken & Trope 1999).

Generally, these dichotomies overlap considerably (e.g., Epstein, 1994; Sloman 1996; Stanovich & West 1997, 1998, 2008). Nevertheless, some key discrepancies have emerged. The impulsive system, as characterized by Strack and Deutsch (2004), for example, as defined as more limited in scope than is the experiential system. This impulsive system is dictated by immediate perceptions only, operating through a simple associative network. This system does not alone underpin intuition. Instead, intuition depends on both the impulsive and reflective system.

Moral decision making

Unconscious thinking might sometimes be applied to reach moral decisions. That is, occasionally, individuals need to decide whether to apply some principle or to permit an exception. Teachers, for example, might need to decide whether to penalize a student who submits an assignment after the deadline--or exempt this person because she had recently experienced some hardship at home.

Originally, many theories implied that individuals, as they mature, tend to apply a cohesive, considered set of principles (e.g., Kohlberg, 1969; Turiel, 1983). In other words, they seemed to invoke the hallmarks of conscious thinking. Recently, however, scholars have argued that intuition, and hence perhaps unconscious thinking, often underpins moral decisions (see Haidt, 2001, 2007; Valdesolo & DeStono, 2006).

The C and X systems

Lieberman, Gaunt, Gilbert, and Trope (2002) distinguished between two neuro-cognitive systems: the C system and the X system. The C or reflective system roughly corresponds to the cognitive system. The X or reflective system roughly corresponds to the experiential system.

Whenever individuals cannot rely on entrenched behaviors or automatic impulses, the C system is activated. For example, sometimes individuals need solve tasks in unfamiliar settings. Alternatively, they might need to inhibit a dominant inclination, such as name the color of words, rather than read these items, during the Stroop task.

Lieberman, Gaunt, Gilbert, and Trope (2002) delineated the brain regions that underpin the C system. According to their evidence, the C system corresponds to the lateral prefrontal cortex, comprising the ventrolateral regions and dorsolateral regions, posterior parietal cortex, and hippocampus as well as related structures in the medial temporal lobe (see also Lieberman, Chang, Chiao, Bookheimer, & Knowlton, 2004).

The lateral prefrontal cortex facilitates working memory. Working memory is needed by individuals to maintain their goals and apply the rules. For example, when individuals complete the Stroop task, they need to retain the goal to name the colors and inhibit their impulse to articulate the words.

The hippocampus and structures in the medial temporal lobe facilitate episodic memory. Episodic memory is needed by individuals to respond to novel contexts. For example, if they shift desks one day, individuals need to retrieve memories of this change the next day to locate their desk.

In contrast, when individuals can rely on entrenched behaviors or automatic impulses, the X system is activated. The X system represents behaviors or inclinations that have been conditioned and reinforced over time.

Lieberman, Gaunt, Gilbert, and Trope (2002) also delineated the brain regions that underpin the X system. According to their evidence, the X system corresponds to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, including the orbitofrontal cortex, basal ganglia, amygdala, and lateral temporal cortex (see also Lieberman, Chang, Chiao, Bookheimer, & Knowlton, 2004).

To illustrate, Lieberman, Jarcho, and Satpute (2011) showed these two systems underpin two distinct forms of self knowledge. For example, sometimes individuals need to evaluate the traits in unfamiliar settings. People who have performed in only one or two shows may need to consider whether they are confident or awkward in these settings. To evaluate these traits, they may need to retrieve memories of these shows, demanding episodic memory, and then interpret their behavior, demanding working memory. Therefore, the C system is activated. This form of self knowledge is called evidence-based.

In other instances, individuals need to evaluate traits in more familiar settings. People who have performed in many shows may need to consider whether they are confident or awkward in these settings. Over time, these individuals may have formed a strong association between performance in these shows and awareness of their confidence. Thus, awareness of their confidence may be evoked intuitively and effortlessly, representing the X system. This form of self knowledge is called intuitively-based.

Lieberman, Jarcho, and Satpute (2011) substantiated these propositions. In this study, the participants were actors or athletes. They evaluated themselves on traits that differentiate actors from one another or athletes from one another. Hence, participants evaluated themselves on characteristics that either related to familiar or unfamiliar settings. If the traits related to the contexts in which the participants were unfamiliar, the lateral prefrontal cortex was activated, representing the C system. If the traits related to the context in which the participants were familiar, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, lateral temporal cortex, and nucleus accumbens were activated, epitomizing the X system. The precuneus was also activated, but whether this region corresponds to the C or X system was not certain.

The approximate number system

Both humans and animals can utilize an approximate number system, enabling rough calculations of quantities without the need to utilize symbols. Exercises that enhance this approximate number system actually improve the capacity of individuals to undertake symbolic mathematics as well (Park & Brannon, 2013). This observation implies this approximate number system--a system that evolves before individuals have developed verbal skills--facilitates the development of complex maths skills.

Several measures have been developed to assess the acuity of this approximate number system. For example, in one task, participants are exposed to two sets of dots. Their task is to decide which set comprises more dots. Interestingly, people who complete this task well, reflecting a more refined approximate number system, also perform better on complex mathematical tasks (e.g., Halberda, Mazzocco, & Feigenson, 2008).

Various interventions have also been applied to enhance the approximate number system. For example, in one study, reported by Park and Brannon (2013), participants completed a task over 10 sessions. On each trial, three sets of dots appeared, and each set comprised 9 to 36 dots. Sometimes, participants were asked to indicate whether the sum of two sets was greater or less than was the number of dots in the third set. Alternatively, participants were sometimes asked to indicate whether the difference between two sets was greater or less than was the number of dots in the third set.

Relative to participants who did not complete this training, participants who completed this training were subsequently more proficient on a task that demands adding and subtracting numbers precisely--but not more proficient on a test of vocabulary. Furthermore, performance on the task with dots improved significantly across the sessions; the acuity of this approximate number system can be refined with practice. Arguably, improvements in the approximate number system may enhance visual attention, improve spatial working memory, or sharpen mental representations of numbers.


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Created by Dr Simon Moss on 18/10/2008

Related objectives:
- Cognitive experiential self theory - Compartmentalization model of self structure - Dual pathway to creative performance - Embodied mode of cognition - The mood congruence model of temporal comparison - The selective accessibility model of social comparison - Unconscious thinking theory - Sequential sampling decision making models - Cognitive dissonance - Dual process models of attitudes - Adaptive memory - The guided activation theory of prefrontal cortex - Somatic marker hypothesis - The verbal-perceptual-image rotation model of intelligence -

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