Styles of Thinking: a Bridge Between Personality and Cognition

Harish Sujan, Penn State University
[ to cite ]:
Harish Sujan (1995) ,"Styles of Thinking: a Bridge Between Personality and Cognition", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: Pge428-429.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pges 428-429


Harish Sujan, Penn State University

Though questions concerning human intelligence have absorbed psychologists for a long time, this area of inquiry has received little attention in consumer research. Intelligence is likely to affect how consumers process information and arrive at decisions. Intelligence is likely to affect how marketers (advertisers, sales promoters, and salespeople) formulate persuasive schemes. Thus, a greater emphasis on researching intelligence in the consumer domain appears to be called for.

Robert J. Sternberg, a psychologist who is considered by many as the principal contributor in current times to research on intelligence, spoke first (for about half the session length) in this special session. He spoke on his recent work on styles of thinking, a theory that concerns the use of intelligence. In earlier work, Sternberg (e.g., 1985) has theorized extensively on the nature of intelligence; proposing a broader and more malleable view of intelligence than traditional conceptualizations. Following Sternberg, Stijn Van Osselaer, University of Florida, described an application of the theory of thinking styles to problem solving. Then I spoke on the matching of consumers' and salespeople's thinking styles. Lastly, Bart Weitz, University of Florida, discussed the three presentations.

Robert J. Sternberg introduced his thinking styles as a preference in the use of one's abilities; often one failed to learn not because one lacked the ability but because the style of teaching was not a preferred one. For example, he had assumed that he lacked the ability to learn languages after being exposed to the mimic and memorize methods of instruction; when exposed to context based methods of language learning he found that he had the ability to learn languages after all. After reviewing some alternative theories of style, he presented his own which is based on the metaphor of government-it views intellectual or thinking styles in terms of mental self-government. Just as there are three functions of government, legislature, executive and judiciary, there are three functions of mental self-government. The legislative function of the mind is concerned with creating, formulating, imagining, and planning. The executive function is concerned with implementing and with doing. The judicial function is concerned with judging, evaluating, and comparing. To illustrate these styles he described three car salespeople he encountered. The legislative salesperson discussed with him how he would use the car, the executive salesperson focused on financing, and the judicial salesperson evaluated for him competitors' cars as inferior. He bought from the legislative salesperson since he, the customer, is legislative too.

Just as there are four forms of government, monarchic, hierarchic, oligarchic and anarchic, there are four parallel forms of mental self-government. The monarchic form is characterized by a preference for tasks and situations that allows focusing on one thing or aspect at a time and staying with that aspect until it is completed. The hierarchic form involves setting multiple goals, each of which have a different priority. The oligarchic form allows for multiple goals, all of which are equally important. Finally, the anarchic form is characterized by a preference for activities that lend themselves to great (sometimes too great) flexibility of approaches and to trying almost anything.

The level of mental self-government suggests that individuals vary in their degree of concern with detail. At the local level there is a preference for tasks, projects, and situations that require engagement with specific, concrete details. At the global level there is preference for problems that are general in nature and that require abstract thinking.

The scope of mental self-government can be either internal or external. On the one hand, the internal style refers to a preference for projects, tasks, or events that allow one to work independently from others. On the other hand, the external style refers to a preference for activities that allow working and interacting with others at different stages of progress.

The two leanings of government suggest that individuals vary in their degree of adherence to pre-existing rules or structures, that is, in their degree of mental liberalism and conservatism. The liberal intellectual style refers to a preference for tasks, projects, and situations that require going beyond existing rules and procedures and that allow substantial change. In contrast, the conservative intellectual style refers to a preference for tasks, projects, and situations that require adherence to existing rules and procedures.

He illustrated the measures he has developed to measure these styles by asking the audience to rate themselves on three statements each pertaining to legislative, executive and judicial styles. He presented data relating to the internal consistency of these measures-this data suggests acceptable consistency for all except the monarchic and anarchic forms.

He then presented the results of an investigation conducted with Elena Grigorenko. Study 1 revealed that at lower grades teachers are more legislative and less executive; that science teachers are more local and humanities teachers are more liberal; that older teachers are more executive, local and conservative; and that teachers' thinking styles matched the styles expressed in the school's ideology. Study 2, on the demographics of styles, revealed that the education level of the father, but not the mother, related negatively with judicial, local, conservative, and oligarchic styles. Younger siblings are more legislative, children of higher SES are less judicial, and students tend to match their teachers, though not the school in general, in style. Study 3 examined if students benefit if their styles match their teachers' styles. It was found that students are evaluated more positively by and receive better grades from teachers who match their styles than from those who do not. It was also found that teachers overestimate the extent to which their students match their own style. From these studies he concluded that intelligence is important, but no matter how broadly defined, it is not enough. We need to look at styles of thought too.

Lastly, he related thinking styles to methods of instruction and forms of assessment in the classroom. Illustratively, lecture methods of instruction tend to go with executive and hierarchical thinking styles while thought-based questioning go with judicial and legislative thinking styles. And, multiple choice tests that tap memory tend to go with executive and local thinking styles while projects that focus on creativity go with legislative thinking styles.

The theory of thinking styles is described in Sternberg (1988a; 1988b; 1994). Grigorenko and Sternberg (1994) details the investigations he described.

Stijn Van Osselaer, University of Florida, reported on research that related the legislative, judicial, and executive functions to stages in the Problem Solving Process. He identified six stages of problem-solving: problem definition, generation of possible solutions, comparison of possible solutions, deciding which solution to take, planning for execution, and execution. He hypothesized that people with a legislative thinking style, because of their focus on creating, are better at the first two stages (definition and generation of solutions), people with a judicial style of thinking, because of their focus on judging, are better at the next two stages (comparison of possible solutions and deciding which solution to take), and people with an executive thinking style, because of their focus on implementation, are better at the final two stages (planning for execution and execution itself). The data he used to test these hypotheses revealed only partial support. He suggested that an alternative way to relate. thinking styles to the problem solving process is to look at preferences for problems, from a set of problems that systematically differ in the emphasis placed on the six stages. This data too revealed only partial support.

He suggested that preferences in the problem solving process could have an important bearing on consumer decision making. For example, preference for the generation of possible solutions might relate with the willingness to take additional brands into consideration, and preference for execution might relate with impulsive buying.

Following Stijn, I reported on research being conducted with Bob Sternberg on the matching of consumers' and salespeople's thinking styles. The first investigation used a negotiation exercise to test the hypothesis that dyads in which the buyer and the seller have similar thinking styles outperform dyads in which the buyer and the seller have different thinking styles. Correlating the absolute difference between buyer and seller thinking styles with the joint score in the negotiation, negative correlations-support for the matching hypothesis--were found for the three functions (judicial, legislative and executive), two levels (local and global) and the hierarchic form; there were no correlations for the monarchic form and the two scopes (internal and external). Reasoning that adaptable (Spiro and Weitz 1990) buyers and sellers would be able to deal with dissimilarity better, we compared the correlations for high (on average) and low adaptable dyads. With one exception, the executive thinking style, we found greater negative correlations matching of thinking styles improves performance-with low adaptable dyads. A second investigation, with sales managers in a pharmaceutical firm, tested matching between thinking style and the nature of work. We found that jobs focused on either seeking orders from new customers or for new products were more likely to have legislative and monarchic sales managers and less likely to have internal sales managers.

A third investigation, also with sales managers in a pharmaceutical company, looked at the effect of thinking styles on job performance and psychological well-being. It was found that a legislative thinking style raises psychological well-being, as a result of increasing a customer orientation (Saxe and Weitz 1982); and an external thinking style raises job performance, again as a result of increasing a customer orientation.

In his discussion, Bart Weitz evaluated thinking styles against other conceptions of behavioral predispositions. He suggested that since little evidence has been found that people proceed systematically through stages of problem solving, it is more interesting to correlate thinking styles with preferences for different types of problems. He indicated that thinking style research had a good fit with questions concerning salespeople and sales managers.

The questions that followed focused on possible alternatives to this taxonomy for styles of thinking. In one question it was suggested that feeling styles may be needed to complement thinking styles.


Grigorenko, Elena and Robert J. Sternberg (1994), "Thinking Styles in School Settings," Manuscript.

Saxe, Robert and Barton A. Weitz (1982), "The SOCO Scale: A Measure of the Customer Orientation of Salespeople," Journal of Marketing Research, 19 (August), 343-351.

Spiro, Rosann L. and Barton A. Weitz (1990), "Adaptive Selling: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Nomological Validity," Journal of Marketing Research, 27 (February), 61-69.

Sternberg, Robert J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, Robert J. (1988a), "Mental Self-Government: A Theory of Intellectual Styles and Their Development," Human Development, 31, 197-224.

Sternberg, Robert J. (1988b). The Triarchic Mind: A New Theory of Human Intelligence, New York: Viking.

Sternberg, Robert J. (1994), "Thinking Styles: Theory and Assessment at the Interface Between Intelligence and Personality," in Personality and Intelligence (eds. Robert J. Sternberg and Patricia Ruzgis), New York: Cambridge University Press, 169-187.