Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models
Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models

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Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models

Activity 1B: Exploring your cognitive style

In this activity the aim is to explore the implications of your cognitive style with regard to your thinking and actions.

Activity 2

  1. 1. Do you feel that your Cognitive Style score, and the corresponding cognitive style feedback, is an appropriate representation of how you see yourself?
  2. 2. Do you feel that the spread of Cognitive Style scores within the participant population is representative of the range of cognitive styles present in society in general?
  3. 3. What challenges do you think you face personally, and society faces in general, with regards to adopting a balanced approach to thinking involving both analysis and intuition?

I would like you to consider these three questions and make notes before reading my response below.


As stated in the introduction to this section, systems thinking is about striking a balance between analysis and synthesis. If you got an indeterminate score, then you may be able to use both styles of thinking, which should give you a head start in systems thinking and practice. Others, including myself (I got a very low score), will have to struggle a little bit against our natural predispositions or, preferably, actively seek to work with people on the other side of the divide in order to achieve the appropriate balance.

Fritjof Capra, one of the most radical and influential systems thinkers of our time, was even more explicit on the need for balancing analytical and intuitive approaches:

The rational and the intuitive are complementary modes of functioning of the human mind. Rational thinking is linear, focused, and analytic. It belongs to the realm of the intellect, whose function is to discriminate, measure, and categorise. Thus rational knowledge tends to be fragmented. Intuitive knowledge, on the other hand, is based on a direct, non-intellectual experience of reality arising in an expanded state of awareness. It tends to be synthesising, holistic, and nonlinear. From this it is apparent that rational knowledge is likely to generate self-centred, or yang, activity, whereas intuitive wisdom is the basis of ecological, or yin, activity.

This, then, is the framework for our exploration of cultural values and attitudes. For our purposes these associations of yin and yang will be most useful:

  • Yin: feminine; contractive; responsive; cooperative; intuitive; synthesising.
  • Yang: masculine; demanding; aggressive; competitive; rational; analytic.

Looking at this list of opposites, it is easy to see that our society has consistently favoured the yang over the yin – rational knowledge over intuitive wisdom, science over religion, competition over co-operation, exploitation of natural resources over conservation, and so on. This emphasis, supported by the patriarchal system and further encouraged by the dominance of sensate culture during the past three centuries, has led to a profound cultural imbalance which lies at the very root of our current crisis – an imbalance in our thoughts and feelings, our values and attitudes, and our social and political structures.

(Capra, 1982)

I would like to end this activity by making a final 'plug' for balancing your thinking by putting a little bit of trust in intuition. The educational system, and society as a whole, has always stressed the need for 'rationality'. This is often expressed through requiring you to 'think things through before acting'. This is all very well for engaging with simple problems, where the number of things to consider are few and you often have enough time to 'think'. However, complex situations are often characterised by information overload and/or the need to make decisions quickly. Our species has therefore evolved the ability to make decisions subconsciously i.e. through intuition, specifically to deal with complex situations.

I have therefore purposefully devised some activities within this course that will overwhelm those individuals who insist on an exclusively analytical approach. These activities will simply not be resolvable through analytical thought alone. What I do not want you to do when you encounter these activities is spend an excessive amount of time thinking things through and thus encounter what is commonly known as 'analysis paralysis'! The analytical solution to dealing with complexity is to focus on a narrower and narrower part of the problem i.e. going into greater and greater levels of detail. In systems thinking, however, you need to observe the 'big picture' before you can evaluate which particular components and relationships are important. So, please trust your intuition in the initial exploratory phases of investigating a complex situation. Don't close your mind prematurely to new information because your analytical side can no longer cope – allow new information to 'wash over you' without judgement. Absorb it subconsciously and open your mind to the emergence of spontaneous relationships.

For those of you interested in the power of intuition to resolve complex problems, I would heartily recommend reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (2006) and/or The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up its Mind by Jonah Lehrer (2009).


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