Cognitive Styles

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.


  1. Gardner, H. (1983/2011). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Sternberg R. J., & Zhang L. (Eds.). (2001). Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. 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.

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