A Sociology of “Thinking Dispositions”14 min read

In a recent interview about his life and career, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman said two particularly interesting things. First, he said much of his current work is focused on individual differences in what he refers to as “System 1” and “System 2” thinking. He discussed his fascination with the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), which includes the famous “bat and ball problem”:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? _____ cents.

What makes this a great question is that it has an intuitive (but wrong) answer that immediately comes to mind (10 cents), and a correct answer (5 cents) that requires you to override that initial intuition and think deliberately to attain it. Some people read this question and simply “go with their gut,” while others take time and think more carefully about it. Kahneman says that what makes this so interesting is that people who are certainly intelligent enough to obtain the correct answer (like students at Harvard) get this wrong all the time and that it predicts important things, including belief in conspiracy theories and receptivity to pseudo-profound “bullshit” (see Pennycook et al., 2015; Rizeq et al., 2020).

     As Shane Frederick (a post-doctoral student of Kahneman’s, who developed the measure) proposed, the CRT measures ““cognitive reflection”—the ability or disposition to resist reporting the response that first comes to mind.” (2005:35). The CRT is one of several measures of what psychologists refer to as “thinking dispositions” or “cognitive styles,” general differences in the propensity to use Type 2 processing to regulate responses primed by Type 1 processing. People with more reflective or analytical thinking dispositions are more careful, thorough, and effortful thinkers, while those with more intuitive or experiential thinking dispositions are more likely to “go with their gut” and trust in their initial responses (Cacioppo et al. 1996; Epstein et al. 1996; Pennycook et al. 2012; Stanovich 2009, 2011).

The second interesting thing Kahneman discussed was his omission of the work of the late psychologist Seymour Epstein. In the early 1970’s, when Kahneman and Amos Tversky started publishing their work on heuristics and biases, Epstein was developing his “cognitive-experiential self theory”: a dual-process theory that proposed that people process information through either a rational-analytical system or an intuitive-experiential system. Apparently, Epstein was upset that Kahneman had failed to recognize his work, even in his popular book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). Kahneman said that he regretted not engaging with his ideas because they were directly relevant to his work on System 1 and System 2 thinking.

Individual Differences in Thinking Dispositions

What neither Kahneman nor the interviewer seemed to recognize is that Kahneman’s recent interest in individual differences in dual-process cognition and his omission of Epstein’s work are in some ways interrelated. Arguably, Kahneman is quite late to the “individual-differences” party. Psychologists have been using measures of thinking dispositions for many years; they have already been established as a workhorse for research in social and cognitive psychology and proven invaluable for explaining pressing issues, including the susceptibility to fake news, the acceptance of scientific evidence, and beliefs and behaviors around COVID-19 (Erceg et al., 2020; Fuhrer and Cova, 2020; Pennycook et al., 2020; Pennycook and Rand, 2019). However, if he had followed Epstein’s work more closely, he likely would have gotten to these individual differences much sooner in his career. Almost a decade before the validation of the CRT, Epstein and his colleagues (1996) developed the popular Rational-Experiential Inventory (REI), a self-report measure of differences in intuitive and analytical thinking.

If Kahneman is late to the party, sociologists do not even seem to know or care about it. Cultural sociologists have been engaging with dual-process models for years, and this scholarship has been highly generative (e.g., DiMaggio, 1997; Lizardo et al., 2016; Vaisey, 2009). However, this work is almost always accompanied by claims about how cognition operates in general. For example, in DiMaggio`s (1997) agenda-setting “Culture and Cognition,” he asserted that due to its inefficiency, deliberate cognition was “necessarily rare” (1997: 271). Similarly, Vaisey (2009:1683) argued that “practical consciousness” is “usually in charge” (2009: 1683). Conversely, those who argue against these works draw on “social psychologically oriented models that assume greater reflexivity on the part of social actors” (Hitlin and Kirkpatrick-Johnson, 2015: 1434) or suggest that “findings from cognitive neuroscience suggest that this model places too much emphasis on the effects of subconscious systems on decision-making” (Vila-Henninger, 2015: 247). These claims presuppose a general, “one-size fits all” model of social actors and the workings of human cognition.

At some level, the lack of consideration for individual differences in sociological work on dual-process cognition is entirely understandable. The term “individual differences,” closely associated with psychological research on intelligence and personality, certainly sounds “non-sociological.” Accordingly, it is not likely to inspire much faith or curiosity from sociologists, similar to the way they might turn their nose up at psychological research about “choice” and “decision-making” (Vaisey and Valentino, 2018). However, these individual differences exist, and therefore sociological models of culture, cognition, and action may be missing something important by not accounting for this individual variability. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that these “individual” differences are actually socially patterned.   

Thinking Dispositions in Sociological Work

We can go back to the classics to find concepts that approximate thinking dispositions and propositions about how and why they are socially patterned. Georg Simmel argued that the psychological conditions of the metropolis (e.g., constant sensory stimulation, the money economy) produce citizens that (dispositionally and habitually) react “with [their] head instead of [their] heart” (2012[1905]: 25) – a more conscious, intellectual, rational, and calculating mode of thought. Relatedly, John Dewey (2002[1922], 1933) wrote about a “habit of reflection” or a “reflective disposition” born out of education and social customs. 

We can also find this line of thinking in more contemporary works. Pierre Bourdieu (2000) argued that the conditions of the skholè foster a “scholastic disposition” characterized by scholastic reasoning or hypothetical thinking. Annette Lareau’s (2011) account of “concerted cultivation” found that wealthier families aimed to stimulate and encourage their children’s rational thinking and deliberate information processing to develop their “cognitive skills.” Critical realists aiming to hybridize habitus and reflexivity have argued that certain conditions (e.g., late-modernity, socialization that emphasizes contemplation) produce habiti in which reflexivity itself becomes dispositional – a reflexive habitus (Adkins, 2003; Mouzelis, 2009; Sweetman, 2003). All of these accounts broadly suggest that people in different social locations are exposed to different types of social and cultural influences which lead them to develop thinking dispositions. 

Socially Locating Thinking Dispositions

In a recent paper with Andrew Miles, I put these considerations to the empirical test by comprehensively establishing the social patterns of thinking dispositions (Brett and Miles, 2021). We quickly found that some psychologists had indeed tested this, particularly using Epstein’s (1996) REI. However, this research was limited in several respects; these studies measured for differences (usually based on age, education, and gender) with little to no theoretical explanation for why these differences exist, nor analytic justification for why they were tested. Furthermore, they typically used bivariate analyses and convenience samples, and taken together, they offered conflicting findings on whether these variables actually matter. As such, we first performed a meta-analysis of 63 psychological studies that used the REI to measure differences in thinking dispositions based on age, education, and gender, followed by an original analysis with nationally representative data. Overall, we found strong evidence that thinking dispositions vary by age, education, and gender, and weaker evidence that they vary by income, marital status, and religion.

While this covers some social patterns of thinking dispositions as an object of study, sociologists would do well to establish their causes and consequences. The thinkers above suggest a variety of mechanisms that may promote thinking dispositions, including specific child-rearing practices and forms of socialization, heightened sensory stimulation, and having the time and space for imaginative, contemplative, or experimental thought – all of which could be tested empirically. But perhaps more importantly, thinking dispositions likely hold significant consequences for culture, cognition, and action that ought to be explored. 

For example, in a recent paper with Vanina Leschziner (Leschziner and Brett, 2019) I used the notion of thinking dispositions to help explain patterns of culinary creativity. We found that chefs who were more invested in innovative styles of cooking tended to be more analytical in their approach, while chefs invested in more traditional styles of cooking held a more heuristic approach to cooking. Notably, this was not simply the result of exogenous pressures they had to create novel dishes; instead, these chefs developed an inclination and excitement for these modes of thought during the creative process that had become dispositional over time. While culture and cognition scholars would typically ascribe these differences to the type of restaurants chefs worked in or the style of food they produced, this misses the distinct link between cognitive styles and culinary styles. As this illustrates, thinking dispositions may hold important but (as of now) largely untapped explanatory value for sociologists.


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