Concepts, the building blocks of thinking, simplify the world by organizing it into a hierarchy of categories. Concepts are often formed around prototypes, or the best examples of a category.
When faced with a novel situation for which no well-learned response will do, we may use problem-solving strategies such as trial and error, algorithms, heuristics, and insight. Creative people solve problems but in novel and valuable ways. Obstacles to successful problem solving include the confirmation bias, mental set, and functional fixedness. Heuristics provide efficient, but occasionally misleading, guides for making quick decisions. Overconfidence, belief perseverance, and framing further reveal our capacity for error. Still, human cognition is remarkably efficient and adaptive. With experience, we grow adept at making quick, shrewd judgments.
Language facilitates and expresses our thoughts. Spoken language is built from phonemes, morphemes, words, and the semantics and syntax that make up grammar. The ease with which children master language has sparked a lively debate over whether children acquire language through association and imitation or are biologically prepared to learn words and use grammar.
Thinking and language are difficult to separate. Although the linguistic determinism hypothesis states that language determines thought, we know that thinking can occur without language, that we often think in images, and so we might better say that thinking affects our language, which then affects our thoughts.
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Cognition refers to the mental activities associated with thinking, knowing, remembering, and communicating. Cognitive psychologists study these activities including the logical and illogical ways we create concepts, solve problems, make decisions, and form judgments.
To think about the countless events, objects, and people in our world, we organize them into mental groupings called concepts. To simplify things further, we organize concepts into category hierarchies. Although we form some concepts by definition—for example, a triangle has three sides— more often we form a concept by developing a prototype, a mental image or best example of a particular category. For example, a robin more closely resembles our “bird” category than does a penguin. The more closely objects match our prototype of a concept, the more readily we recognize them as examples of a concept. Once we place an item in a category, our memory of it later moves in the direction of the category prototype.
We approach some problems through trial and error, attempting various solutions until stumbling upon one that works. For other problems, we may follow a methodical rule or step-by-step procedure called an algorithm. Because algorithms can be laborious, we often rely instead on simple thinking strategies called heuristics. Speedier than algorithms, heuristics are also more errorprone. Sometimes, however, we are unaware of using any problem-solving strategy; the answer just comes to us as a sudden flash of insight. Researchers have identified brain activity associated with insight.
In general, a certain level of aptitude is necessary but not sufficient for creativity (the ability to produce novel and valuable ideas). Studies suggest five other components of creativity: expertise, imaginative thinking skills, a venturesome personality, intrinsic motivation, and a creative environment. The brain regions supporting the convergent thinking tested by intelligence tests (requiring a single correct answer) differ from those supporting the divergent thinking that imagines multiple solutions to a problem (such as how many uses you can think of for a brick).
Another obstacle to problem solving is fixation—the inability to see a problem from a fresh perspective. The tendency to repeat solutions that have worked in the past is a type of fixation called mental set. It may interfere with our taking a fresh approach when faced with problems that demand an entirely new solution. Our tendency to perceive the functions of objects as fixed and unchanging is called functional fixedness. Perceiving and relating familiar things in new ways is an important aspect of creativity.
The representativeness heuristic involves judging the likelihood of things in terms of how well they seem to represent, or match, particular prototypes. If something matches our mental representation of a category, that fact usually overrides other considerations of statistics or logic. The availability heuristic operates when we base our judgments on the availability of information in our memories. If instances of an event come to mind readily, perhaps because of their vividness, we presume such events are common. Both heuristics enable us to make snap judgments. However, these quick decisions sometimes lead us to ignore important information or to underestimate the chances of something happening. Overconfidence, the tendency to overestimate the accuracy of our knowledge and judgments, can have adaptive value. People who err on the side of overconfidence live more happily, find it easier to make tough decisions, and seem more credible than those who lack self-confidence. At the same time, failing to appreciate one’s potential for error when making military, economic, or political judgments can have devastating consequences.
We exhibit belief perseverance, clinging to our ideas in the face of contrary evidence, because the explanation we accepted as valid lingers in our minds. Once beliefs are formed and justified, it takes more compelling evidence to change them than it did to create them. The best remedy for this form of bias is to make a deliberate effort to consider evidence supporting the opposite position. Although human intuition is sometimes perilous, it can be, whether conscious or unconscious, remarkably efficient and adaptive. Moreover, it feeds our expertise, our creativity, our love, and our spirituality. Smart intuition is born of experience. As we gain expertise in a field, we become better at making quick, adept judgments. Experienced nurses, firefighters, art critics, hockey players, and anyone who develops a deep and special knowledge learn to size up a situation in an eyeblink. Intuition is powerful, but sometimes perilous, and especially so when we overfeel and underthink, as we do when judging risks. So, we need to check our intuitions against reality. The same issue presented in two different but logically equivalent ways can elicit quite different answers. This framing effect suggests that our judgments and decisions may not be well reasoned and that those who understand the power of framing can use it to influence important decisions— for example, by wording survey questions to support or reject a particular viewpoint.
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Language is our way of combining words to communicate meaning. Spoken language is built from basic speech sounds, called phonemes; elementary units of meaning, called morphemes; and words. Finally, language must have a grammar, a system of rules that enables us to communicate with and understand others. Semantics refers to the rules we use to derive meaning from the morphemes, words, and sentences; syntax refers to the rules we use to order words into grammatically sensible sentences. In all 6000 human languages, the grammar is intricately complex.
Children’s language development moves from simplicity to complexity. Their receptive language abilities mature before their productive language. Beginning at about 4 months, infants enter a babbling stage in which they spontaneously utter various sounds at first unrelated to the household language. By about age 10 months, a trained ear can identify the language of the household by listening to an infant’s babbling. Around the first birthday, most children enter the one-word stage, and by their second birthday, they are uttering two-word sentences. This two-word stage is characterized by telegraphic speech. This soon leads to their uttering longer phrases (there seems to be no “three-word stage”), and by early elementary school, they understand complex sentences.
The debate between the behaviorist view that emphasizes learning and the view that each organism comes with innate predispositions surfaces again in theories of language development. Representing the nurture side of the argument, behaviorist B. F. Skinner argued that we learn language by the familiar principles of association (of sights of things with sounds of words), imitation (of words and syntax modeled by others), and reinforcement (with success, smiles, and hugs after saying something right). Challenging this claim, and representing the nature side of the debate, Noam Chomsky notes that children are biologically prepared to learn words and use grammar (they are born with what Chomsky called a language acquisition device already in place). He argues that children acquire untaught words and grammar at too fast a rate to be explained solely by learning principles. Moreover, there is a universal grammar that underlies all human language. Cognitive neuroscientists suggest that the statistical analysis that children perform during life’s first years is critical for the mastery of grammar. Skinner’s emphasis on learning helps explain how infants acquire their language as they interact with others. Chomsky’s emphasis on our builtin readiness to learn grammar helps explain why preschoolers acquire language so readily and use grammar so well. Nature and nurture work together. Childhood does seem to represent a critical (or “sensitive”) period for certain aspects of learning. Research indicates that children who have not been exposed to either a spoken or signed language by about age 7 gradually lose their ability to master any language. Learning a second language also becomes more difficult after the window of opportunity closes. For example, adults who attempt to master a second language typically speak it with the accent of their first.
Thinking and Language
Although Benjamin Whorf’s linguistic determinism hypothesis suggests that language determines thought, it is more accurate to say that language influences thought. Language expresses our thoughts, and different languages can embody different ways of thinking. Many bilinguals report that they have a different sense of self, depending on which language they use. We use language in forming categories, and words can influence our thinking about colors. Perceived differences grow when we assign different names to colors. Given the subtle influence of words on thinking, we ought to choose our words carefully. Studies of the effects of the generic pronoun he and the ability of vocabulary enrichment to enhance thinking reveal the influence of words. We might say that our thinking influences our language, which then affects our thoughts.
We often think in images. In remembering how we do things, for example, turning on the water in the bathroom, we use nondeclarative (procedural) memory—a mental picture of how we do it. Artists, composers, poets, mathematicians, athletes, and scientists all find images to be helpful. Researchers have found that thinking in images is especially useful for mentally practicing upcoming events and can actually increase our skills. Research suggests that mental rehearsal can help one to achieve an academic goal.
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*Work Cited: All summary notes come from *Myers Pyschology for AP, Lecture Guides (2011 Worth Publishers)