The Theory of Cognitive Modes

A new understanding of thinking and behavior

Social Prosthetic Systems

The TV show 'Modern Family' illustrates corollary of Cognitive Modes Theory.

Clearly, if you don’t have the ability or skill to do something you need to do, you should turn to someone (or something) else for help. That much is obvious—or is it? How to explain why so many of us have trouble asking other people to help us? (The classic example, from the pre-GPS age, is how many men won’t stop at a gas station to ask for directions.)

Our recommendation: First, overcome reluctance to ask for help. The question then becomes: Who, exactly, should you reach out to?

Answers can be found in the principles of what we call social prosthetic systems, a name coined by drawing an analogy to physical prosthetic systems. Imagine that you had lost a leg. To help you walk, you would rely on a prosthesis—the modern-day steel-and-plastic equivalent of a wooden leg. This prosthesis makes up for a lack, allowing you to accomplish a task (in this case, walking). Not only do people rely on physical prostheses, but they also can rely on cognitive ones.

For instance, an electronic calculator is a cognitive prosthesis, filling in for a lack so that you can accomplish a specific task. But the main cognitive prosthesis we rely on is other people. Other people help us extend our intelligence and help us recognize and manage our emotions. We set up “social prosthetic systems,” which consist of relationships that revolve around a given person’s lacks and needs plus other people who are motivated to help make up for those lacks and fill the needs.

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Social prosthetic systems can be set up and maintained over many years. Over time, you may come to realize that certain people you know are ideal partners to help you in specific contexts. One key is identifying each individual's dominant Cognitive Mode: Stimulator, Mover, Adaptor or Perceiver. Anyone can determine her or his dominant mode at the 20-question, automatically scored online test.

Contemporary TV brings us an example pf Social Prosthetic Systems. The creators of the Emmy Award–winning show Modern Family seem to have intuited the essentials when they scripted the Dunphy family dynamic.

Father Phil acts as if he operates in Stimulator Mode much of the time, always making plans that invariably fall apart when he does not properly react to changing circumstances—but he tries. Mother Claire often (though not always) acts as if she functions in Mover Mode, attempting to rein in her husband and children while keeping everyone on the same page. With her tendency to be drawn into one situation after another, older daughter Haley would seem frequently to behave in Adaptor Mode—but she adds value with her entertaining and playful spirit. Alex, Haley’s younger sister, clearly acts as if she prefers to operate in Perceiver Mode, serving as the wiser-than-her-years commentator on her family’s unfolding life—dispensing advice that, not surprisingly, is sometimes ignored. Although still young, son Luke seems to be headed toward a preference for operating in Stimulator Mode, like his father. Together, the Dunphys make it work. By the end of each episode, they have resolved issues and moved ahead, the family still functioning as a unit.

The crucial idea is that when you are interacting with another person in this way, he or she has the capacity to make you more effective, in the role of a “social prosthesis.” He or she fills in for your lack. And in the process, at that moment you become a different person, transformed by your inter-actions with the other, just as the amputee who wears the springy artificial feet becomes a better runner than when she wears the conventional artificial feet.

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

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