INST 354 Lecture 2: INST354 Lecture 2: Thinking-Automatic and Controlled
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INST354 Lecture 2: Thinking-Automatic and Controlled
What is thinking? Briefly, it is the creation of mental representations of what is not in the
immediate environment. Seeing a green wall is not thinking; however, imagining what
that wall would be like if it were repainted blue is. Noting that a patient is jaundiced is
not thinking; hypothesizing that the patient may suffer from liver damage is. Noticing
that a stock’s price has dropped is not thinking, but inferring the causes of that drop and
deciding to sell the stock is.
Sir Frederick Bartlett, whose work 50 years ago helped create much of what is now
termed cognitive psychology, defined thinking as the skill of “filling gaps in evidence”
(1958). Thinking is probably best conceived of as an extension of perception—an
extension that allows us to fill in the gaps in the picture of the environment painted in
our minds by our perceptual systems, and to infer causal relationships and other
important “affordances” of those environments. (For example, Steven Pinker 
provides an instructive analysis of the assumptions that we must be using as “premises”
to “infer” a mental model of our three-dimensional world based on our fragmentary two-
dimensional visual percepts.)
To simplify, there are basically two types of thought processes: automatic and
controlled. The terms themselves imply the difference. Pure association is the simplest
type of automatic thinking. Something in the environment “brings an idea to mind,” or
one idea suggests another, or a memory. As the English philosopher John Locke
(1632–1706) pointed out, much of our thinking is associational. At the other extreme is
controlled thought, in which we deliberately hypothesize a class of objects or
experiences and then view our experiences in terms of these hypothetical possibilities.
Controlled thought is “what if” thinking. The French psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–
1980) defined such thinking as “formal,” in which “reality is viewed as secondary to
possibility.” Such formal thought is only one type of controlled thinking. Other types
include visual imagination, creation, and scenario building.
To distinguish between these two broad categories of thinking, we can give an
example. Many of our clinical colleagues who practice psychotherapy are convinced
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