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Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Personality Diversity and Cognitive Modes in the Origins Debate: Part Two

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the sixth installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

In the previous article, the possibility that the origins debate stems in part from personality or cognitive differences was introduced. This article will focus in a more technical way on the possible roots of those differences and their implications.

Cognitive Modes
The links between personality (who we are and what motivates us) and cognition (how we think and process information) are complex and multifaceted. However, it would be rational to expect a connection between them, since both motivation and cognition are undergirded by one and the same neural apparatus! Much theorizing on the phenomenon of hemispheric lateralization (the fact that our higher brain centers are divided into mirror-image opposite halves or hemispheres, which appear to process information in radically different ways) has led to speculations, some more scientifically grounded than others, about how the personality-cognition linkage might work in practice.

Most experts, with varying degrees of skepticism about these notions, probably now agree that the left hemisphere processes information in a more linear, detail-minded, logic-driven manner (asking narrower or more concrete questions, and being more verbally driven), as compared to the more nonlinear, big-picture, intuitive processing of the right hemisphere (asking broader or more abstract questions, and being more visually driven). Since, to a greater or lesser extent, all of have a more dominant hemisphere (the world can be divided into left-hemisphere and right-hemisphere types), some would go further beyond the evidence to speculate about personality and motivational differences between these two types of individuals. Some authors call them the “safeguarding self” and the “experimenting self”, for instance.

Different Colored Thinking Hats
Perhaps influenced by these ideas, consulting psychologist Edward de Bono has postulated six different cognitive modes or ways of using one’s mind, which he believes are learnable skill sets that can be enhanced through targeted practice. He uses the metaphor of putting on different “thinking hats” to characterize the shift between cognitive modes; thus, he talks about detailed observation (White Hat), emotional expression and empathy (Red Hat), creativity and humor (Green Hat), logical critiquing and troubleshooting (Black Hat), and so forth. Linking these ideas to the previous paragraph, it seems likely that left-hemisphere persons specialize more in White and Black Hat thinking, as opposed to the Green and Red Hat emphases of the right-hemisphere thinker.

Again, my research on student views of the origins debate is beginning to examine the influence of cognitive mode differences on student views of creation and evolution. (Note: Readers of this series will have the opportunity to examine my research instrument in the concluding article of this series). Somewhat in line with the previous hypothesis, I expect to find that evolutionists (and particularly secular evolutionists) will show more evidence of White and Black Hat thinking (“just the facts, ma’am,” as Jack Webb used to intone each week on Dragnet), while creationists and perhaps also theistic evolutionists to a lesser extent will show more evidence of Green and Red Hat thinking (“there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy”).

Further Implications
If the intractable divide between creationists and evolutionists in the wider world is, in fact, driven in part by fundamentally different ways of thinking and processing information, it is no surprise that opponents routinely talk past one another and fail to understand the meanings and motivations of each other. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist - which is convenient for me, since I’m not one - to observe, along with Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier, that most of the origins debate has been yet another example of “dialogues of the deaf”.)

A good first step in bridging the divide may be an explicit recognition of the fact that there are multiple gateways to truth (or at least to the conviction that something is true), and that many of the classic disputes really are, as children of the Vietnam War era are still prone to put it, “arguments about the shape of the table”. Those who are cognitively prone to restrict themselves to direct empirical evidence often fail to understand how anyone can doubt evolutionary science or, more radically, why anyone would need to assert any level of kind of explanation other than the reductionistic and proximal. On the other hand, those whose natural cognitive tendency is to place empirical data in a wider context (or, in more extreme cases, to disparage the role of the merely empirical) can’t easily understand how anyone could be satisfied with an explanatory framework that failed to ask the wider questions of meaning, purpose, and ultimate metaphysical causality. Colin Chapman’s famous work on the six ways of knowing is a good framework for bridging these differences, and I recommend it (particularly its exposition in Christianity on Trial, a work that remains cogent though now rather dated).

Questions for Discussion
1. What do you think of De Bono’s idea that factual-logical thinkers (White and Black Hat) may differ dramatically in outlook and motivation from intuitive-subjective thinkers (Green and Red Hat)? Might these differences, in part, underlie the origins debate? Where on this continuum do you think you fall, and why?

2. From an evolutionary standpoint, why might both styles of thinking have persisted throughout human (pre)history? (This is a very speculative question, but I would be interested in readers’ thoughts about it.) Presumably both styles are functional and adaptive in some fashion. How and why?

Copyright © 2008 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved


T'sinadree said...

I recently discovered this blog and the timing couldn't have been better. Although the topic of evolution has never really bothered me, I've come quite interested in it lately.

Anyway, I just wanted to recommend the following, fantastic book concerning how affective, or psychological aspects of human nature influence reason: Wainwright, William J. (2006). Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomenon to a Critique of Passional Reason. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN: 978-0-8014-7348-7 (Paperback).

Here's the publisher's summary:

Between the opposing claims of reason and religious subjectivity may be a middle ground, William J. Wainwright argues. His book is a philosophical reflection on the role of emotion in guiding reason. There is evidence, he contends, that reason functions properly only when informed by a rightly disposed heart.

The idea of passional reason, so rarely discussed today, once dominated religious reflection, and Wainwright pursues it through the writings of three of its past proponents: Jonathan Edwards, John Henry Newman, and William James. He focuses on Edwards, whose work typifies the Christian perspective on religious reasoning and the heart. Then, in his discussion of Newman and James, Wainwright shows how the emotions participate in non-religious reasoning. Finally he takes up the challenges most often posed to notions of passional reason: that such views justify irrationality and wishful thinking, that they can’t be defended without circularity, and that they lead to relativism. His response to these charges culminates in an eloquent and persuasive defense of the claim that reason functions best when influenced by the appropriate emotions, feelings, and intuitions.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Sounds like a fascinating book! I know of two lines of thought, one philosophical, the other scientific, that would seem to support this premise.

Philosophically, the work of Roy Clouser (The Myth of Religious Neutrality), which is an exposition for a non-technical audience of the ideas of neo-Calvinist philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, seems aligned with these ideas. The notion is that human objectivity about ultimate matters is impossible, hence autonomous reason is an oxymoron. Clouser's work is well worth knowing whether or not one ultimately accepts his premises.

Scientifically, Antonio Domasio (Descartes' Error) provides strong empirical support for the notion that an emotionless person loses the capacity to reason and make good decisions. (So much for Mr. Spock.) He cites his work with brain-damaged individuals who lose the ability to integrate reason and emotion. Fascinating stuff.

I'll look forward to reading the book you mention. So many books, so little time - I'm glad I believe in an afterlife.

Steve Martin said...

On #1, I’m probably more white hat / black hat guy (hey, my background is mathematics).

You stated that:

Somewhat in line with the previous hypothesis, I expect to find that evolutionists (and particularly secular evolutionists) will show more evidence of White and Black Hat thinking

Hmm. I’m curious why you think this. In my experience, it seems that mathematics and engineering types (classic left hemisphere people) are more likely to oppose evolution than those from other scientific backgrounds or from the humanities. This would seem to be the opposite from what you expect.

Cliff Martin said...

I share some of the same impressions that Steve expresses ... that some of the passionate YEC folk seem to be Black/White hat types (does this correlate with "seeing things in black and white"?). But I do understand that people who tend toward facts and logic should come down on the side of what seems scientifically undeniable ... evolution and common descent.

1) As for me, I think of myself as a black/green. Is that a valid option in terms of how you framed your question?
2) Why would both thinking patterns be adaptive in evolutionary terms? Simple. Opposites attract. A black/white female may prefer to mate with a red/green male? and vice versa. Yes?

Steve Martin said...

Well, since Cliff brought it up ... there are green / red hat aspects of myself as well ... does that mean I'm Schizophrenic? Which, for many seems to be a good description of the EC position ... hmm, maybe I should just keep my thoughts to myself.

Yes he should.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Any combination is theoretically possible. I am a Green-Red. From a paper I recently submitted for possible publication, I offer the following:

The two most theoretically compelling contrasts are those between Green and White Hat thinking (r = -.329, p < .01) and between Red and Black Hat thinking (r = -.305, p < .01). Students who perceive themselves as creative, imaginative, idea-driven, and nonlinear (Green Hat) are unlikely also to perceive themselves as detail-minded, precise, observant, and factual (White Hat), and vice versa; those who see themselves as subjective, emotive, and relational (Red Hat) are unlikely also to perceive themselves as objective, analytical, and skilled at critical thinking (Black Hat), and vice versa.

Allan Harvey said...

Just an amateur observation about what others have pointed out, which is the relatively large number of black/white "just the facts" people among anti-evolutionists.

Perhaps the correlation is that, among Christians, such people are more likely to be Biblical literalists. Those who have more appreciation for shades of gray tend to be more open to reading Scripture in less simplistic ways, such as those that allow for God to create via evolutionary processes.

RBH said...

Let's keep in mind that those are actually pretty small correlations, with something like 90% of the variance unaccounted for. I'm wary of classification systems that get reified into crisp sets ("I'm blue-gold") when the associations are so small.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

True enough, yet in psychology (especially personality psychology, a correlation greater than 0.3 is cause for celebration! I'm throwing a party.