The Theory of Cognitive Modes

A new understanding of thinking and behavior

Are You Most Comfortable Operating in Stimulator Mode?

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

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. In this post, we’ll explore Stimulator Mode, which results when one utilizes the top-brain system deeply but does not utilize the bottom-brain system deeply.

When people think in Stimulator Mode, they often create and execute plans (using the top-brain system) but fail to register consistently and accurately the consequences of acting on those plans (using the bottom-brain system). They may be creative and original, and may be able to think outside the box even when everybody around them has a fixed way of approaching an issue or situation. But, at the same time, these people may not always note when “enough is enough”—their actions can be disruptive and they may not adjust their behavior appropriately. According to our theory, people who habitually rely on Stimulator Mode should be able to play a crucial role as a team member; however, to be most successful, they should not be the sole leader but would be better off working with others who can help them adjust their plans as events unfold.

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To help make the Theory of Cognitive Modes concrete, we examined the behaviors of prominent people. From history, we concluded that the behavior of anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman illustrated the results of operating in Stimulator Mode. Living people whose behavior illustrates the results of operating in Stimulator Mode include the singer/songwriter Courtney Love, who has led her bands to success many times but consistently veers out of control; Tiger Woods, who often appears to operate in decisive Mover Mode on the golf course but not always in his personal life; talk-show host Glenn Beck, who has not changed his obsession with conspiracy theorizing despite negative consequences (including a decline in ratings that prompted Fox News to drop him). On the other hand, Stephen Colbert has used the appearance of operating in Stimulator Mode to his advantage, and many creative types appear to benefit from it.

The example of a neighborhood association or local club provides another illustration. The woman who throws out an idea a minute with happy abandon may be exemplifying Stimulator Mode behavior. You might be tempted to dismiss her out of hand, but some of the ideas are good—even though she herself makes little effort to sort through them. If she is put in charge of a project, she probably is as likely to fail as to succeed—not necessarily because the basic idea of the plan is bad, but rather because she doesn’t stay on top of fine-tuning it as events unfold.

As always, we emphasize that no one mode is always better than another, and none is ideal in every circumstance. In spite of certain drawbacks, being in Stimulator Mode has some advantages. For instance, you can generate plans and stick to them, allowing creative ideas to come to fruition (Steve Jobs sometimes seemed to operate in Stimulator Mode). And if you are good at operating in this mode in a given situation, others may often turn to you as a source of ideas. Moreover, being in Stimulator Mode offers a degree of freedom, of not being nudged by small things that happen around you.

Still, if our theory is correct -- and we remind you that it is a theory -- then the downside is clear: People who are operating in Stimulator Mode can be bulls in a china shop and can easily offend others. In Stimulator Mode, you often may not adjust your behavior in response to the results of your plan—and that can be a problem if your plan turns out to have been inappropriate for the circumstances. In addition, being in Stimulator Mode can be frustrating. You can make good plans and still be blindsided. This can lead to feeling unappreciated by others, misunderstood, and dissed.

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

In our next post, we will continue our exploration of the Theory of Cognitive Modes by focusing on Adaptor Mode. For an overview of the theory, 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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