Dual Process Theories

Dual Process Theories Definition

Dual process theories are a group of theories in social, personality, and cognitive psychology that describe how people think about information when they make judgments or solve problems. These theories are called dual process because they distinguish two basic ways of thinking about information: a relatively fast, superficial, spontaneous mode based on intuitive associations, and a more in-depth, effortful, step-by-step mode based on systematic reasoning. Dual process theories have been applied in many areas of psychology, including persuasion, stereotyping, person perception, memory, and negotiation. In general, these theories assume that people will think about information in a relatively superficial and spontaneous way unless they are both able and motivated to think more carefully.

Dual Process Theories Background and History

Dual Process TheoriesDual process theories are built on several key ideas that have a long history in psychology. For instance, the two modes of thinking described by various dual process theories can often be mapped onto a top-down, idea-driven way of understanding the world versus a bottom-up, data-driven way of understanding. The notion that the way people understand the world is critically influenced by the knowledge that they bring to a situation (so that they begin at the top—their heads—in their understanding), as well as by the information provided within the situation itself (the bottom), dates back to Wolfgang Kohler’s distinction in the 1930s between perception and sensation. For instance, when a person looks at a book on a table, he or she senses both a pattern of colors and lines with his or her eyes and actively labels the pattern “book” by using his or her knowledge about what a book is like.

Dual process theories also build on Gestalt principles explored by psychologists in the 1930s and 1940s, which suggest that people have a natural tendency to make experiences meaningful, structured, and coherent. By focusing on how one thing relates to the next and seeing patterns in the way that events unfold, a person can understand and predict the social world, which allows him or her to anticipate, plan, and act effectively.

These and other elements were integrated into dual process theories in a variety of fields, beginning in the 1980s, often as an attempt to understand and synthesize conflicting findings or theories in the area. In persuasion, for instance, the development of two dual process theories (the elaboration likelihood model and the heuristic-systematic model) allowed researchers to organize complex findings in the field of attitudes and attitude change and explain why certain variables sometimes lead to attitude change and sometimes do not. For instance, when people are relying on simple, intuitive shortcuts in their thinking, they will be more persuaded by an expert than by a nonexpert, even when the expert’s arguments are not very good. However, when people are relying more on systematic, bottom-up processing of all available information, they will tend to be more persuaded by good arguments than by someone’s title.

Similarly, in the field of person perception, the continuum model of impression formation was developed in an attempt to reconcile two competing viewpoints on how people perceive others: one proposing that individuals form impressions in a bottom-up fashion, adding up lots of specific evaluations about a target person to form an overall average impression, and another claiming that people form impressions based on stereotypes or other social categories (e.g., race, gender). The continuum model suggests that people can use both of these modes, and the model identifies when a perceiver will rely solely on an initial, general categorization and when he or she will go on to think more carefully about another person based on unique information about that individual.

Dual Process Theories Importance and Consequences

As dual process theories became increasingly popular, they were adopted by more and more areas of psychology to describe how people think about information and arrive at conclusions. Dual process theories differ in various ways. For instance, some assume that the two ways of thinking about information are mutually exclusive (either/or), whereas others suggest that they happen one after the other, or even at the same time. However, the theories are more similar than different. They typically distinguish between a quick, superficial mode and an effortful, systematic mode of thinking. They also identify factors that affect whether people are able to and want to think carefully about information. In addition, they predict how the use of each mode will influence outcomes such as judgments, attitudes, stereotyping, and memory. By focusing on how people think about social information, dual process theories allow psychologists to identify the way in which a given variable (e.g., time pressure) will influence these thought processes and how this change in thinking will in turn affect the conclusions and judgments that people make.

As an example, consider the heuristic-systematic model of attitude change in the field of persuasion. Like other dual process theories, the heuristic-systematic model proposes two distinct modes of thinking about information. Systematic processing involves attempts to thoroughly understand any information encountered through careful attention, deep thinking, and intensive reasoning (e.g., thinking carefully about the arguments presented, the person arguing, and the causes of the person’s behavior). This information is combined and used to guide subsequent attitudes, judgments, and behaviors. For instance, a systematic approach to thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might involve reading as many magazine and newspaper reports as possible to learn and develop an opinion about the best course of action for the Middle East. Not surprisingly, such systematic thinking entails a great deal of mental effort, and requires that a person (a) can devote a certain amount of attention to thinking about the issue and (b) wants to devote this attention. Thus, systematic processing is unlikely to occur unless a person is both able and motivated to do it.

Relative to systematic processing, heuristic processing is much less mentally demanding and much less dependent on having the ability (e.g., enough knowledge and enough time) to think carefully about information. In fact, heuristic processing has often been called relatively automatic because it can occur even when people are not motivated and able to deliberately think about a topic. Heuristic processing involves focusing on easily noticed and easily understood cues, such as a communicator’s credentials (e.g., expert or not), the group membership of the communicator (e.g., Democrat or Republican), or the number of arguments presented (many or few). These cues are linked to well-learned, everyday decision rules known as heuristics. Examples include “experts know best,” “my own group can be trusted,” and “argument length equals argument strength.” These simple, intuitive rules allow people to form judgments, attitudes, and intentions quickly and efficiently, simply on the basis of the easily noticed cues, and with little critical thinking. A heuristic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might involve simply adopting the opinion of a noted Middle East political expert. In other words, heuristic thinking is what a per-son does when he or she does not have much ability or time to think about something and wants to make a quick decision.

The heuristic-systematic model suggests that people’s ability and motivation to think carefully about information influence whether they rely solely on quick decision rules or go on to think about information more carefully and deeply. Furthermore, this model identifies three broad categories of motives that influence whether thinking in either manner will be relatively open-minded versus relatively biased. Accuracy motivation is geared toward discovering what is correct. Accuracy motivation leads to relatively open-minded, evenhanded thinking. Defense motivation refers to the need to protect oneself against potential threats to one’s valued opinions and beliefs. This self-focused motivation leads people to choose heuristics that help protect their beliefs and to systematically think about information in a biased way that supports these beliefs. Finally, impression motivation involves the desire to make a good impression on another person or to maintain a positive relationship with someone. This other-focused motivation also biases thinking in favor of reaching a desired conclusion—in this case, the one that will best serve the relationship. Research on these three motivations reveals that people can think about information in an open-minded way when they have a lot of time and energy and really want to, but they are also very good at thinking about information in a way that lets them believe what they want to believe or what they think others want them to believe.

Dual process theories have been applied to many other research areas in social psychology. For example, the MODE model (motivation and opportunity as determinants of the attitude-behavior relationship) suggests that attitudes may guide behaviors in one of two ways. Strong positive or negative attitudes can guide behavior directly, without the individual thinking very much. Or, individuals can construct their attitudes in a more bottom-up, systematic fashion and then use this new attitude to determine their behavior. As another example, dual process models of how we perceive other people suggest two sequential modes of thinking about information when forming impressions of others. First, individuals spontaneously categorize the person (e.g., “She is a woman”; “He is Chinese”), and then—if they are both motivated and able to do so—they continue on to think more systematically about individuating, unique features of the person. Similarly, a dual process model of stereotyping suggests that people have an automatic tendency to stereotype others but can correct this stereotype if they are motivated and able to deliberately modify their views.

Perhaps most recently, a dual process perspective has been applied to negotiation settings. Studies in this field suggest that when negotiators have little desire to think carefully (or are unable to think carefully), they often rely on stereotypes about an opponent’s group membership or the belief that if one side wins the negotiation, the other has to lose. In contrast, when motivation and ability to think carefully are relatively high, reliance on these heuristics tends to decrease, and systematic processing increases. This allows negotiators to discover win-win solutions that are better for both parties.


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