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Cognitive Continuum Theory (Hammond et al, 1987) offers a framework for linking cognitive style to task performance.  All tasks and problems can be located on a continuum of structuredness (see Figure 1).  At one end are unstructured tasks for which there are no widely accepted decision rules or objective criteria of success.  Laughlin (1980) refers to these as ‘judgemental tasks’.  Often they involve behavioural, political, ethical or aesthetic judgements.  At the other end of the continuum are ‘intellective tasks’ that involve a definite objective criterion of success and to which well established decision rules can be applied.  Examples of intellective tasks include calculating volumes, assessing costs or solving quadratic equations.

Cognitive style and performance: Product
Cognitive style and performance: Product

A key factor influencing the effectiveness of learning and problem solving is the degree of correspondence (match) between the way a person processes information (cognitive mode) and the information processing demands of the task.   Intuitive thinking is most effective when applied to unstructured problems because non-conscious and unconstrained processing can help identify the patterns and underlying structures that can lead to a sense of knowing about how to proceed.   Analytic thinking, on the other hand, is most effective when applied to structured tasks.

Cognitive style and performance: Product
Cognitive style and performance: Product

Ideally, individuals will ‘oscillate’ between the poles of the thinking continuum in order to process information in a way that responds to the structuredness of the task.  However, this matching process can be impaired by an individual’s cognitive style, their preference for, or disposition towards, a particular way of processing information.  The tendency to favour a specific cognitive style can reduce the correspondence between cognitive mode (the way we actually process information) and task demands and thus hinder task performance.

People enter situations with a cognitive style that either matches or mismatches the information processing requirements of that situation.  Where there is a match they will find it easier to attend to and interpret relevant information and use it to perform effectively.  Where there is a mis-match they may fail to attend to or interpret important information.


Hammond, K. R . , Hamm, R. M., Grassia, J. and Pearson, T . (1987). Direct comparison of the efficacy of intuitive and analytical cognition in expert judgement. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, 17, 753-770.

Laughlin, P. 1980. Social combination processes of cooperative problem-solving groups on verbal intellective tasks. In M. Fishbein (Ed.), Progress in social psychology, vol. 1: 127–155. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cognitive style and performance: Product
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