The Theory of Cognitive Modes

A new understanding of thinking and behavior

Are You Most Comfortable Operating in Adaptor Mode?

Last in our four-part look at each of the modes.

In this last post in our four-part series looking at each of the Cognitive Modes, we will explore Adaptor Mode, which results when one utilizes neither the top-brain system nor the bottom-brain system deeply.

To recap: The Theory of Cognitive Modes posits that people vary in the extent to which they tend to rely on the top-brain and bottom-brain systems in their thinking and behavior. We all use both brain systems, but depending on how deeply one does or doesn’t utilize each system, different cognitive modes result. Each of us has a dominant mode, which—all else being equal--we rely on; although we can change modes if we have the relevant experience and motivation, we often are most comfortable operating in a single mode. [To determine if you typically operate in Adaptor, Stimulator, Perceiver or Mover Mode, take the online test.]

People who are thinking in Adaptor Mode are not caught up in initiating plans, nor are they fully focused on classifying and interpreting in depth what they experience; instead, they are open to becoming absorbed by local events and the immediate requirements of the situation. If the Theory of Cognitive Modes is correct, they often are “action-oriented” and responsive. In addition, people who habitually operate in this mode often “go with the flow” and may tend to be seen as free-spirited and fun to be with.

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People who are thinking in this mode should be valuable team members because they can easily adapt to plans. In business, people who typically operate in Adaptor Mode would often form the backbone of the organization, carrying out the essential operations.

To help illustrate the Theory of Cognitive Modes, we examined the behaviors of prominent people. We concluded that the behavior of the great actress Elizabeth Taylor and Yankee Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle typified the results of typically operating in Adaptor Mode. Among the living people whose behavior illustrates the results of typically operating in Adaptor Mode are Britney Spears and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.

The example of a neighborhood association or local club provides another illustration. Someone who habitually thinks in Adaptor Mode will not dominate formulating strategy during a meeting and may not have much to contribute during this planning stage. But once plans are in place, he or she embraces the assignment and may work hard to carry it out. If asked to go door-to-door to solicit services from businesses for the fund-raising auction, she or he may be happy to do this. If the plan doesn’t work so well (few businesses respond positively), he or she won’t make much of an effort to figure out how to fix the problem—he or she has already carried out her role.

Being in Adaptor Mode has some clear advantages. When you relax, you really relax—you don’t fret about the future or obsess about the past. Moreover, because you very likely are easy to get along with in this mode, other people often enjoy your company. The downside, according to the Theory of Cognitive Modes, is that you will often be buffeted by the world around you—and that can be detrimental. As psychologists showed long ago, animals that have some control over their environment experience less stress (and fewer ulcers) than animals that are always on the receiving end, having no such control.

As always, we emphasize that no one mode is always better than another, and none is ideal in every circumstance.

For an overview of The Theory of Cognitive Modes, see our initial post, watch a video, or take a look at Top Brain, Bottom Brain. 

Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ph.D., is a psychologist and neuroscientist, and G. Wayne Miller is an author.

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