The Theory of Cognitive Modes

A new understanding of thinking and behavior

Are You Most Comfortable Operating in Mover Mode?

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

According to the Theory of Cognitive Modes, people vary in the degree 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. In this post, we’ll explore Mover Mode (for an overview of the theory, see our initial post or watch a video).

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Mover Mode results when both the top-brain and bottom-brain systems are highly utilized. When people think in this mode, they are inclined to make and act on plans (using the top-brain system) and to register the consequences of doing so (using the bottom-brain system), subsequently adjusting their plans based on this feedback.

According to our theory, people who habitually rely on Mover Mode typically are most comfortable in positions that allow them to plan, act, and see the consequences of their actions. Such people should typically be well suited to being leaders. They might head a company, act as a principal of a school, or take charge of revising a church afterschool program.

In illustrating the Theory of Cognitive Modes, we studied the actions and words of prominent people to consider what their dominant mode might be. Looking back in history, we concluded that the Wright Brothers, credited with designing and building the first successful airplane, fit that mode, along with President Franklin D. Roosevelt; two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie; and Bill France Jr., who expanded NASCAR from its regional roots into the national sport it is today. Living people who seem regularly to think and behave in Mover Mode include Oprah Winfrey, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, dance pioneer Alvin Ailey, and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who brought the University of Notre Dame to international prominence during his presidency.

Another illustration may be found in the example of a neighborhood association or local club. The head of the group may be someone who habitually operates in Mover Mode. This person consistently looks ahead and devises plans, which she or he puts into action. For example, he or she may be the one who comes up with a clever way to get businesses to donate services for the annual fundraising auction. But she or he does not blindly charge ahead. If a plan to have this fund-raiser falters, for example, she or he would be the first one to think about what went wrong and how to do it better next time.

We emphasize that no one mode is always better than another, and none is ideal in every circumstance. According to our theory, being in Mover Mode should have obvious advantages. You are often the captain of your fate, the master of your circumstances (at least as much as they allow). If you are good at operating in this mode in a particular situation, others should turn to you as a leader in that context.

But operating in Mover Mode also has its drawbacks. If you perform inadequately, perhaps because you don’t have enough experience relevant to those circumstances, you can easily offend others. Of course, if you are operating in Mover Mode effectively, you will adjust your behavior depending on what happens—but on-the-job learning doesn’t necessarily work well in all situations.

And operating in Mover Mode can be exhausting! You need to observe your surroundings carefully, make plans, act on them, observe the results, and adjust accordingly. All of this requires energy. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it. Sometimes, a cup of chamomile tea is the wise choice.

Do you typically operate in Mover Mode -- or in Perceiver, Stimulator or Adaptor Mode? To find out, you can take a quick online, automatically scored, test here.

In our next post, we will continue our exploration of the Theory of Cognitive Modes by focusing on Stimulator Mode. For a deeper understanding of the theory and a more detailed discussion of each mode, 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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