Broadly defined, cognition refers to mental operations involving information processing and thus includes processes such as perception, problem solving, memory recall, and decision making. The term cognitive styles refers to the different approaches people characteristically use in undertaking cognitive tasks. Considered to be a personality trait and representing both nature and nurture effects, cognitive styles are thought to influence individuals’ values, attitudes, and social interactions. Examples of cognitive styles include (a) reflectiveness versus impulsiveness, (b) cognitive complexity versus simplicity, and (c) tolerance versus intolerance for unrealistic experiences. Individuals are thought to differ in their quickness to respond to stimuli, their ability to process complex cognitive information, and their acceptance of unexpected experiences. To explain variability in cognitive styles, scholars from various domains have generated a number of theoretical and applied explanations addressing differences in (a) hemispheric lateralization, (b) perception and information processing, (c) problem-solving approaches, and (d) field dependence or independence. Aligned with the idea of cognitive styles, there is the notion of learning styles, specifically, (a) different types of learning and (b) idiosyncratic modes of intelligence. This entry presents research findings on both cognitive and learning styles and their application to the sport psychology domain.
Neuroscience research has revealed that the right hemisphere of the brain controls holistic and pictorial processing while the left hemisphere is more centrally involved in analytical and logical operations. Accordingly, peoples’ cognitive styles are expected to vary on a continuum ranging from primarily logical–analytical (left-hemisphere dominant) to predominantly holistic–pictorial functioning (right-hemisphere dominant). Furthermore, individuals’ cognitive styles may be further categorized into two orthogonal dimensions: (1) holistic–analytic and (2) verbal–imagery. The holistic–analytic dimension refers to how individuals gather and store structured information. Holists retain a gestalt, global conceptualization, of information, whereas analytics deconstruct information into its subcomponents. The verbal–imagery dimension refers to how individuals decode structured information. Verbalizers decode information by using words and verbal associations, whereas visualizers create mental pictures to represent structured information. These styles or individual differences typically exist on a continuum, and most people do not fall clearly into one or other discrete style classification.
Moreover, people perceive and process information using different methods. Activists learn through active experimentation and by proactively engaging in new experiences. Theorists generate hypotheses and then engage in analytical thinking and deductive reasoning. Pragmatists prefer methods based on measurable goals and practical outcomes. Reflectors, in contrast, engage in conscious and deliberate processing before comprehending and storing new information. Theoretically, therefore, activists are likely to learn best when exposed to new experiences; theorists optimize their learning experiences when presented with testable concepts; pragmatists prefer simulations of real scenarios; and reflectors excel when working on observational reports and analyses.
People also differ in their tendencies toward solving problems by engaging in (a) adaptive or innovative solutions, and (b) convergent or divergent thinking approaches. Adaptors utilize existing paradigms to generate solutions for a given problem, whereas innovators create new paradigms to problem solving. Similarly, convergent thinkers generate a singular and accurate response to a given problem, whereas divergent thinkers generate multiple responses. Additional variability in information processing among human beings may also be explained through a tridimensional approach based on (1) emotional or relational, (2) mental, and (3) physical dimensions. The relational or emotional dimension refers to knowledge primarily gained through social interactions and verbal and nonverbal communication. The mental dimension pertains to information acquired via deliberate thinking, abstract conceptualization, objectification, and reflection. The physical dimension represents knowledge apprehended via action-oriented skills, such as playing a sport or musical instrument.
Field dependence or independence is another extensive studied cognitive style. According to cognitive control theory, field dependent individuals rely on external cues and tend to generate a macroglobal view of a given context. Conversely, field independent individuals rely on internal cues and focus on identifying detailed information of a given context. Furthermore, field-dependent individuals have a greater social orientation than field independent individuals, who are more likely to be introverted. Although not conclusive, research has shown that demographic, cultural, and situational factors may also influence people’s reliance on field dependence or independence styles. For example, children and older adults are more likely to be field-dependent than younger adults. Also, Western societies are thought to be primarily field-independent, whereas non-Western cultures have been described as predominantly field dependent. Finally, research suggests that people may also vary their preferred cognitive style from task to task.
Research in the sport and exercise psychology domain has revealed personal differences in athletes’ cognitive styles. For example, Robert M. Nideffer’s theory of attentional and personal styles suggests that people vary in their preferred attentional focus. More specifically, athletes have been shown to vary in both the width (broad to narrow) and direction (internal or external) of their preferred attentional style. Furthermore, research findings in the athletic domain confirmed the central tenets of attribution theory, as different sport actors (athletes, coaches, or referees) have been shown to vary in their causal attributions accounting for their success or failure. Finally, studies assessing learning and motor performance, as a function of field dependence or independence, have not been conclusive. This is congruent with current understanding of expert performance in sports, which suggests that reliable superior performance is dependent upon the task and domain specific cognitive skills.
Cognitive styles have also been linked to learning preferences. More specifically, people tend to prefer some learning modalities, such as visual, auditory, and tactile or kinesthetic, over others. Visual learners rely primarily on diagrammatic and pictorial information to gain knowledge of a particular subject. Auditory learners gain knowledge by primarily attending to spoken and written information. Kinesthetic or tactile learners acquire new knowledge by experiencing new activities and performances. Accordingly, kinesthetic or tactile learners should be given the opportunity to try out their new skills. Auditory learners may benefit from class discussions, as well as thinking and reading aloud exercises. Learning styles, however, may not be as discretely different as originally categorized.
Recommended instructional activities for visual learners include use of maps, videos, and presentations. Finally, a combination of multimethods like visual auditory and kinesthetic methods may facilitate learning across the board. However, it is important to note that learning styles may not be as discretely different as originally categorized.
Congruent with the idea of preferred learning styles, psychologist Howard Gardner has proposed seven distinct intelligence modes underlying cognitive variability among human beings. Specifically, Gardner’s’ model is grounded on the notion that people possess idiosyncratic mental capabilities represented by the following seven domains: (1) visual and spatial, (2) verbal and linguistic, (3) logical and mathematical, (4) bodily and kinesthetic, (5) musical and rhythmical, (6) interpersonal, and (7) intrapersonal intelligence. According to this view, creative architects primarily operate under visual and spatial intelligence mode; accomplished writers rely on verbal and linguistic intelligence mode, and so forth.
In summary, people vary in their preferred methods of processing information. For example, hemispherical dominance may explain why some individuals are more analytical than others. Personality tendencies may explain why some people are labeled activists and others theorists. Moreover, people vary in types of intelligence: field dependence, independence, and preferred attention and attribution styles. Research findings revealed that some individuals learn through visual channels while others primarily rely on their listening skills. There are also innovators, adapters, convergent, and divergent thinkers. This extensive variety of cognitive styles and abilities illustrates the complexity of designing optimal learning environments. Therefore, educators and applied professionals, such as coaches, should consider people’s cognitive idiosyncrasies when preparing their instructional activities and selecting domains of expertise. Consideration of multimethods may facilitate learning across the board and retention of new and difficult information.
- Gardner, H. (1983/2011). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
- Sternberg R. J., & Zhang L. (Eds.). (2001). Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Suedfeld, P. (2000). Cognitive styles: Personality. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 166–169). New York: American Psychological Association & Oxford University Press.