The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Under construction to be edited Robert J. Sternberg - Images of Mindfulness

Journal of Social Issues / Spring, 2000
Images of Mindfulness
by Robert J. Sternberg

Robert J. Sternberg

This article addresses the question: How should mindfulness be understood? Three views are considered. The first is that mindfulness should be understood as a cognitive ability. According to this view, people differ in their capacity to think in a mindful way, much as people differ in memory or intelligence. The second view is of mindfulness as a personality trait. According to this view, mindfulness is a stable disposition, much as would be extraversion or neuroticism. The third view is of mindfulness as a cognitive style. According to this view, mindfulness represents a preferred way of thinking. Mindfulness has characteristics of all three but seems closest to being a cognitive style. Construct validation is needed in order to address this and related questions.

Yesterday I woke up, trudged to the kitchen, and as usual, I took out the regular coffee for myself and the espresso for my wife. I made our separate kinds of coffee, at which point I realized that my wife's coffee would be cold by the time she got to drink it: She had left the day before for Venezuela and would not be back for a week. The week before it was I who had been on a trip abroad, attending a professional conference. The first morning--the day of my presentation--I whipped out my portable electric razor, wanting to look good for my talk. The battery had discharged and so I needed to recharge it. Unlike some mindless people, I even had remembered to bring my worldwide electrical converter. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had forgotten the cord, so that although I had the razor and the converter, I had no cord to connect the razor to the converter and hence to an electrical socket.

Is there really anyone in the whole world who cannot relate to Ellen Langer's (1989, 1997) construct of mindlessness and its complement, mindfulness? I doubt it. Whether it is the cup of coffee with no one to drink it, or the razor discharged so that no one can use it, we all act at times in ways that are so mindless that we find ourselves astounded. The constructs of mindlessness and mindfulness are intriguing because they seem so much a part of our lives.

When I speak of "mindfulness," I define mindfulness in this article via Langer' s (1997) definition, as containing components of (a) openness to novelty; (b) alertness to distinction; (c) sensitivity to different contexts; (d) implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives; and (e) orientation in the present. Mindfulness thus is a many-sided, or heterogeneous, construct. "Mindlessness" is the lack of these attributes. But how should mindfulness (in contrast to mindlessness) be understood?

Although Langer (1989, 1997) tends to view mindfulness in relative isolation from the literatures on cognitive abilities, personality, and cognitive styles (see review in Ferrari & Sternberg, 1998), the construct might attract more attention from scholars in these fields if they believed the construct "belonged" to one field or another. At the same time, it is precisely this narrow compartmentalization of fields from which the construct of mindfulness helps us escape. But which field does it belong to, if any? Or does it belong to more than one field? Answering this question is made somewhat more challenging by the heterogeneous components of mindfulness.

My main goal in this article is to relate mindfulness to a variety of kinds of constructs in the psychological literature. This goal is important because mindfulness has stood in relative isolation from much of the psychological literature. We would understand mindfulness better if we understood the relation between this construct and other constructs in the literature.

Is Mindfulness a Cognitive Ability?

A cognitive ability can be viewed as a latent source of cognitive skill and usually also is viewed as a source of individual differences in such skills. Cognitive abilities are most often identified by (a) the existence of systematic and relatively stable individual differences, usually through factor analysis or related techniques, or (b) the identification of a unique processing component that accounts for differences in performance of a given individual on various tasks or task variants (Sternberg, 1977). In other words, the ability is a source of variation among either persons, stimulus conditions, or both. At this time, a scale for the measurement of mindfulness has been constructed only recently and is not yet construct-validated, so it is not possible to say whether the construct will meet these conditions. However, openness to novelty; sensitivity to different contexts; implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives; alertness to distinction; and orientation in the present sound relate d to, although not necessarily identical to, cognitive abilities.

Starting With Theories of Abilities

When one looks at current theories of abilities, mindfulness seems to bear some correspondence. The most thorough taxonomy, at least from a psychometric perspective, is that of Carroll (1993). Carroll conducted an exhaustive review and reanalysis of more than 460 data sets in the factor-analytic literature. These data sets all used covariation-correlation information in order to obtain factor structures underlying the scores comprising the data sets. The assumption is that the factors underlying the scores represent latent mental abilities. The classes of abilities he identified included (a) general abilities (e.g., fluid ability and crystallized abilities); (b) reasoning abilities (e.g., verbal reasoning and syllogistic reasoning); (c) abilities in the domain of language behavior (e.g., verbal comprehension and spelling ability); (d) memory abilities (e.g., associative memory and memory span); (e) visual perception abilities (e.g., perceptual speed and closure speed); (f) auditory perception abilities (e.g. , pitch discrimination and auditory closure); (g) number facility (no more specific abilities were identified); (h) mental speed abilities (e.g., general mental speed and simple reaction time); (i) abilities in producing and retrieving words, ideas, and figural creations (e.g., ideational fluency and word fluency); (j) sensory abilities (e.g., auditory hearing threshold and visual acuity); (k) attention and concentration abilities (e.g., attention and concentration, and carefulness and attention to detail); and (1) abilities pertaining to interpersonal behavior (e.g., interpretation of facial expressions and gestures). Carroll also identified factors pertaining to other aspects of the self, but they were not identified as abilities.

The set of cognitive abilities that mindfulness is most reminiscent of is (k), including attention and concentration abilities. Carroll notes that he has found very few factor-analytic studies addressed to attentional abilities, so his analysis is not on the firmest of ground. Because of the possible overlap with mindfulness, it is perhaps worth specifying in further detail some of the 21 factors Carroll identified in this subset of cognitive abilities. The factors are not explicitly named and not all are adequately described. The tests loading on these factors are described in Carroll (1993, p. 549). Examples of such tests are concentration tests, carefulness tests (such as number checking, filing, and checking copy), time-sharing letter tasks, tests of oral and written directions, reverse reading, tests requiring parallel information processing, tracing-precision tasks, and freedom from distractibility. Here are some examples of the factors identified.

Factor 2 appears to be a factor that is involved when simple tasks are presented that require novel manipulations. An example is reversed reading, which is a task in which people respond true or false to sentences in which the words are in the proper order but in which the letters of each word are in reverse order. Factor 3 appears to be a Carefulness factor. It has been identified by French (1957) in four measures of the extent to which people make errors in simple numerical and perceptual speed tasks. Factor 4 involves tasks requiring close attention if errors are to be avoided. It also has been interpreted as "set to concentrate" (Angleitner & Rudinger, 1975). Carroll interprets it as a Carefulness or Closeness of Attention factor. Factor 5 seems to involve time-sharing or attention to simultaneous tasks. It appears also to involve memory span. Factor 7 is an auditory-vigilance factor. This construct refers to being able to detect a signal embedded in long periods of no signal. Factor 8 (like Factor 5) ap pears to be a time-sharing factor, or a factor measuring the extent to which a person can attend to two (or more) tasks at once (Fogarty, 1987). Factor 10, identified originally by Lumsden (1965), also appears to be a Carefulness factor. Tests loading on this factor are the following of simple oral and written directions. According to Carroll, these abilities fall into two general classes, those measuring a person's ability to pay close attention and those measuring a person's ability to attend to two tasks simultaneously.

Other theories also might be queried for overlap with the mindfulness construct. Gardner (1983, 1998) speaks of linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, naturalist intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, and most recently, existential intelligence. None of these intelligences seems to overlap much with the mindfulness construct.

Another way to examine the overlap between mindfulness and abilities is to consider the components of mindfulness and examine their interrelations to various abilities--thus one starts with mindfulness rather than with other theories.

Starting With Aspects of Mindfulness

Openness to novelty. The relationship of openness to novelty to conventional theories of intelligence would seem to be through what Cattell (1971) and Horn (1994) have referred to as "fluid abilities." These are the abilities used to reason with relatively novel kinds of stimuli. They are measured, for example, by the geometric matrix problems found in the Raven (1965) Progressive Matrices or the various kinds of geometric reasoning tests (including matrices) found in the Cattell and Cattell (1957) Test of g--Culture Fair (with the "Culture Fair" label almost certainly a misnomer). More recent theories of intelligence (e.g., Raaheim, 1974; Sternberg, 1985, 1997a) have also stressed the importance of coping with relative novelty for intelligence.

In our own work, my colleagues and I have measured one of the aspects of mindfulness as defined by Langer, openness to novelty, or something similar to it, in a variety of ways. We typically have used maximum-performance rather than typical-performance tests because of our belief that typical-performance measures are somewhat more susceptible to demand characteristics. We have used both convergent and divergent tasks. Consider each in turn as elucidating measurement operations that may help capture this important aspect of mindfulness.

One kind of convergent task is called a conceptual-projection task (Steinberg, 1981, 1982; Tetewsky & Steinberg, 1986). In one instantiation of the task, participants are presented with a description of the color of an object in the present day and in the year 3000. The description in each case can be either pictorial--a green dot or a blue dot-or verbal--one of four color words, namely, green, blue, grue, bleen. An object was defined as green if it appeared physically green both in the present and in the year 3000. An object was defined as blue if it appeared physically blue both in the present and in the year 3000. An object was defined as grue if it appeared physically green in the present but physically blue in the year 3000 (i.e., it appeared physically green until the year 3000 and physically blue thereafter). And an object was defined as bleen if it appeared physically blue in the present but physically green in the year 3000 (i.e., it appeared physically blue until the year 3000 and physically green thereafter). The terminology was based on Goodman (1955).

The participant's task was to describe the object in the year 3000. If the given description of the year 3000 was a pictorial one, the participant had to indicate the correct verbal description of the object; if the given description for the year 3000 was a verbal one, the participant had to indicate the correct physical description of the object. There were always three answer choices.

Performance on this task was decomposed into elementary information processing components. Perhaps the most interesting finding was the identification of the component that measured something similar or identical to what Langer calls openness to novelty. This component was measured in two ways: through the amount of time it took a person to switch from the conventional green-blue type of thinking to the unconventional grue-bleen type of thinking, and back again, and through the error rate for this process. Some people find it relatively comfortable and easy to switch back and forth; others find it extremely difficult. They can think well in conventional ways but have a great deal of difficulty adopting unconventional or novel ways of thinking.

We also have studied openness to novelty through what we refer to as nonentrenched inductive reasoning problems (Steinberg & Gasrel, 1989a, 1989b). These problems involve standard kinds of induction items, such as analogies, classifications, and series-completion problems. The induction items were modified in one important way, however. The items were preceded by premises that were either factual or counterfactual. A factual premise would be one like "Birds fly in the air" whereas a counterfactual premise would be one like "Birds play hopscotch." The participants would always have to solve the induction items under the assumption that the premise was true, whether or not it actually was. A difference score then could be used to determine increases in response time and error rate as a function of having a counterfactual as opposed to a factual premise. Once again, we found that the measure gave us an index of a person's openness to a novel kind of thinking.

Yet another kind of convergent problem is the insight problem (Davidson & Sternberg, 1984; Sternberg & Davidson, 1982). An example of such a problem is "You have blue socks and brown socks in a drawer located in a dark room. The socks are mixed in a ratio of four to five. How many socks do you have to take out of the drawer to be assured of having a pair of the same color?" The correct answer is three. We found that some people who are adept at solving ordinary mathematics problems that require routine applications of formulas are not so adept at solving these novel kinds of insight problems.

A second kind of problem is divergent rather than convergent. We have used problems that require participants to think in novel ways that are likely to be relatively novel to them (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995). For example, they might be asked to write two very short stories. They would be given perhaps a dozen titles and be asked to choose two among them. But the titles would be novel ones, such as "The Octopus's Sneakers" or "Beyond the Edge." In a second task, participants would be asked to render two drawings, but of unusual topics, such as "The Beginning of Time" or "Earth From an Insect's Point of View." In a third task, participants would be asked to produce novel advertisements for very conventional and boring products, such as a new brand of bow tie or a new brand of doorknob. In a fourth task, participants would be asked to solve quasi-scientific problems, such as how we could know if someone had been on the moon in the past month or how we could spot extraterrestrial aliens among us who were trying t o escape detection.

In each of these four domains, products were rated for a number of attributes, most important among which were novelty, quality, and task-appropriateness (three elements of creativity). We found that participants' creative openness to novelty was relatively domain specific: People who were creative in one domain were not necessarily creative in another domain. We also found that scores on these tasks were only modestly to moderately correlated with scores on tests of intelligence. Correlations were higher the more novel the items were on the intelligence test that was used.

Other investigators also have been interested in the relation of openness to novelty to various kinds of mental abilities. Perhaps the most relevant theoretical and empirical work is actually that done on infants by Fagan (1992), Lewis and Brooks-Gunn (1981), and others (see Bornstein, 1989, for a review). This work has shown that infants with a greater preference for novelty when they reach later childhood score better on IQ tests than do infants with a lesser preference for novelty. The researchers typically use habituation and dishabituation paradigms in order to establish this point.

This research represented something of a turning point in work on infant intelligence. Prior to this work, sensorimotor tests such as those found in the Bayley (1969) Scales and such as would be consistent with Piaget's (1972) theory of intellectual development had been used to measure infant intelligence. But these tests had failed to show any consistent correlations with IQ later in childhood (Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Bundy, 1998).

Alertness to Distinction

Alertness to distinction ((b) above) is measured at the perceptual level by certain tests of perceptual speed (in which often one has to indicate which of a set of geometric or other objects differs in some minute detail from other objects in a list) and at the conceptual level by certain tests of inductive reasoning (in which often one has to say which of several objects does not belong with the others in a list). In the classificatory induction task, the difference is conceptual, whereas in the perceptual-speed task it is perceptual. Both perceptual speed and inductive reasoning are fairly standard elements in conventional psychometric theories of intelligence (e.g., Carroll, 1993; Thurstone, 1938).

Alertness to conceptual distinction also has played an important role in the componential subtheory of the triarchic theory of human intelligence (Steinberg, 1985, 1997a). When components are applied to relatively familiar tasks, they are involved in analytical thinking. Some of the mental processes involved in analytical thinking, beyond analysis, are comparing and contrasting and malting judgments of how things are the same and different.

Perhaps an even more important role for conceptual distinction is in what is referred to as an executive, or "metacomponential" process, namely, defining the nature of a problem. Often people solve problems incorrectly because they misdefine what the problems are in the first place. Put another way, they fail to distinguish between the way they are defining the problem and the way the problem should be defined. Sometimes the effects are profound. For example, the 1998- 1999 basketball season was ruined because both players and team owners seem to have defined the problem of negotiating a settlement as one of maximizing their own gains. A better way of defining the problem would have been in terms of maximizing their joint interests, which presumably would have meant that each side would be willing to take a somewhat greater short-term loss in the hope of achieving a greater long-term gain. How people handle such difficult problems can be measured through their responses to conflict resolution problems (Stein berg & Dobson, 1987; Steinberg & Soriano, 1984) or even problems requiring wisdom (Steinberg, 1998a).

One way in which my colleagues and I have measured alertness to distinction is through an everyday induction task that requires participants to make either predictions or postdictions about distinction or the lack thereof at times in the future or in the past (Steinberg & Kalmar, 1997). In the everyday induction task, participants are given information both about the present and about either the future or the past. For example, the participant might be told that on February 3, 1999, the milk in a bottle of milk is fresh. The participant would then be asked to characterize, as quickly as he or she can, the milk on February 23, 1999 (or on January 23, 1999). Will the milk be spoiled on February 23 (or was it spoiled on January 23)? In half the cases, a change of state is involved whereas in the other half of the cases no change is involved. By breaking down participants' performance into components, we can get an index of their sensitivity to state change versus sameness (as well as to prediction versus postdi ction).

Sensitivity to Different Contexts

Sensitivity to different contexts, another aspect of mindfulness according to Langer, is in some ways a difficult construct to pin down, as it is not clear that it is a characteristic that a person will show that is generalizable across all contexts. Because the problems found on conventional intelligence tests tend to be rather decontextualized, I would doubt that they would provide any valid measure of the construct of sensitivity to different contexts.

Classical intelligence theory has grossly underemphasized the importance of context (Sternberg & Wagner, 1994). People think differently in different contexts, but conventional tests of mental abilities often make little or no allowance for contextual effects. There have been many demonstrations of this fact.

Ceci and Bronfenbrenner (1985), for example, asked 10- and 14-year-old children either to charge a motorcycle battery or to bake cupcakes in a task involving a waiting period of exactly 30 min. While they waited, the children were allowed to play a video game and simultaneously were allowed to check how much time had passed. The investigators found completely different functions for checking the clock as a result of the children's being asked to do the task either in a laboratory setting or in a home setting. In other words, the context in which the children did the task had a major effect on how they did the task.

Nu[tilde{n}]es (1994) has reported on a number of studies she and her collaborators have done in which Brazilian street children solved mathematical problems. The children solved the problems either on the street in the context of their own street business or in the context of a classroom, where they did the kinds of arithmetic problems that typically are found in the school curriculum. The investigator found, as did Ceci and Bronfenbrenner, that context was crucial for the results. Children performed much better in solving the problems when the problems were presented in the context of their street business than when they were presented in the context of school mathematics. Lave, Murtaugh, and de la Roche (1984) reported similar results for Berkeley housewives, who were far better in solving problems presented in the context of a supermarket than in that of a mathematical achievement test.

In our own work, my colleagues and I have measured sensitivity to context through the assessment of tacit knowledge as it applies in contexts that one encounters in one's daily life. These contexts can be exquisitely detailed, and the right course of action may depend on minor variations in the details of the context (Sternberg et al., 2000; Sternberg, Wagner, Williams, & Horvath, 1995). We have done an extended series of studies in which we have compared people's practical intelligence in the context of their work to their academic intelligence in the context of a typical conventional test of intelligence. The design of these studies is different from that of, say, Ceci and Bronfenbrenner. We were not looking at the identical task administered under different conditions. Our design also was different from that of, say, Nu[tilde{n}]es and her colleagues or Lave and her colleagues, in that we did not look at roughly isomorphic tasks administered under different conditions. Rather, we tried to construct tests that would be as relevant as possible for predicting performance in practical, as opposed to academic, settings.

In this series of studies with business managers, academic psychologists, elementary school teachers, salespeople, college students, military leaders, and others, we repeatedly have found that scores on tests of practical intelligence typically do not correlate with scores on tests of academic intelligence. When they do correlate significantly, they may correlate positive or negatively. But scores on these tests predict performance in real-world settings as well as or better than do tests of academic intelligence (see Sternberg et al., 1995).

Thus it appears that people are very sensitive to context. Their performance in one context may be very different from their performance in another context. A theorist of general intelligence might view this result as problematic. But from the perspective of mindfulness, the result is not problematic at all. People should treat tasks differently in different contexts. If one has a decision to make, there is no reason to believe that one's decision will or should be the same if the decision is unimportant as opposed to if one's life depends on it. Thus, one might be willing to invest a sum of money in a risky stock if the money represents a sum that is not important to one's well-being. But one is (or at least should be!) less likely to invest the same sum of money in that risky stock if one's whole retirement fund depends on it.

Awareness of Multiple Perspectives

Awareness of multiple perspectives has been studied by some cognitive-developmental psychologists under the rubric of dialectical thinking. Some of these psychologists have argued that the ability to think dialectically constitutes a fifth stage of thinking beyond that specified by the four stages in Piaget's model of intellectual development. These psychologists even have argued that such thinking is the hallmark of wisdom (Birren & Fisher, 1990; Labouvie-Vief, 1990; Pascual-Leone, 1990; Riegel, 1973; Sternberg, 1998a, 1999). It also has been argued that dialectical thinking can serve as a basis for teaching and learning psychology and other disciplines (Sternberg, 1998b).

According to this view, dialectical thinking would develop at some point after the end of formal operations, perhaps in the college years. It is then a critical attribute for success in higher order thinking. People who do not learn to think dialectically--to see things from different and often opposing points of view--may be good formal-operational thinkers, but they will never go beyond formal operations. They will be locked in a logical mode of thinking that often does not adequately serve in solving the problems that life dishes out.

Orientation in the Present

Orientation in the present is perhaps the most elusive of the elements of mindfulness specified by Langer. One certainly can see its relevance to the mindfulness construct. Presumably people who are paying attention to their present surroundings are behaving in a more mindful fashion than those who are not. For example, those pedestrians in dangerous cities who pay more attention to their immediate surroundings and signs of danger in these immediate surroundings presumably are less at risk than those who amble along mindlessly, failing to heed the danger signals around them. This aspect of mindfulness seems to be the most problematic, since a future orientation, as exhibited by delay of gratification, might be more adaptive for many kinds of tasks (Mischel, 1973).

Probably the tests that best measure this construct are simulations that require an individual to solve a realistic problem in real time. Such tests are widely used in assessment centers. My colleagues and I have occasionally tried such tests ourselves. For example, in a study of the tacit knowledge of salespeople, we have used simulated cold-sales phone calls as a basis for assessing whether a person is an effective salesperson.

To conclude, mindfulness seems to bear considerable overlap with cognitive abilities and intelligence, broadly defined (Carroll, 1993; Sternberg, 1985). Nevertheless, I think that the mindfulness construct--whatever its overlap with constructs of cognitive abilities or intelligence--makes at least two valuable additions. First, the particular conjunction of attributes specified for mindfulness is not specified by any theory of intelligence. Whether these attributes in fact will be found to cohere psychometrically remains an empirical question, but at a theoretical level, the construct seems at least somewhat distinct from existing ability constructs. Second, the mindfulness construct may be more useful when conceived of in state rather than in trait terms. People may differ in their average levels of mindfulness, but perhaps the standard deviation in a person's mindfulness is a more interesting construct than is the mean. To the extent that this state can be measured successfully, such measurement will be a valuable contribution to our understanding of people's interactions with the contexts in which they live.

Is Mindfulness a Personality Trait?

Mindfulness might be a personality trait rather than a cognitive ability. It might be useful to consider a well-regarded trait theory of personality and to inquire as to whether mindfulness resembles any of the traits proposed. Here mindfulness is considered as a whole rather than in terms of its parts because the available research does not enable one to pinpoint its aspects as clearly for personality as for cognition.

The most popular trait theory today is probably the big-five theory (Costa & McCrae, 1992a, 1992b; Digman, 1990; Goldberg, 1993; McCrae & John, 1992; Peabody & Goldberg, 1989). Although there are certainly other theories, big-five theory has gained such overwhelming comparative acceptance that I will limit my discussion to this theory alone. This theory of personality recognizes the frequent recurrence of five personality traits across studies (especially factor-analytic studies) and even across theorists. The big-five traits were first proposed by Warren Norman (1963) but since have been championed by many others.

Although different investigators sometimes have given the big five different names, they generally have agreed on five key characteristics as a useful way to organize and describe individual differences in personality. The following descriptions represent the five traits:

1. Neuroticism--characterized by nervousness, emotional instability, moodiness, tension, irritability, and frequent tendency to worry.

2. Extraversion--characterized by sociability, expansiveness, liveliness, an orientation toward having fun, and an interest in other people.

3. Openness to experience--characterized by imagination, intelligence, and aesthetic sensitivity, as well as openness to new kinds of experiences.

4. Agreeableness--characterized by a pleasant disposition, a charitable nature, empathy toward others, and friendliness.

5. Conscientiousness--characterized by reliability, hard work, punctuality, and a concern about doing things right.

Mindfulness seems potentially related to openness to experience. There is almost certainly some overlap. Moreover, research suggests that openness to experience itself is correlated with cognitive abilities (McCrae, 1996). So it would seem potentially fruitful to pursue the relation between the two constructs. Mindfulness also may bear some relation to conscientiousness. Studies are needed that correlate mindfulness with these traits to see if indeed there is a relation.

Is Mindfulness a Cognitive Style?

The scale Ellen Langer is developing for measuring mindfulness/mindlessness is a typical-performance one (whereby one describes patterns of behavior rather than exhibiting those patterns of behavior), so that whatever mindfulness may be, it is being measured in a way that more typically characterizes personality or cognitive styles than cognitive abilities. Again, mindfulness is considered as a whole rather than in its components because the available research does not enable us adequately to pinpoint its components.

Styles are preferred ways of using one's cognitive abilities (Steinberg, 1997b). That is, they represent not abilities per se, but how people like to employ their abilities in their daily lives. Styles can be of different kinds: thinking styles, learning styles, teaching styles, cognitive styles. Langer's mindfulness/mindlessness construct most resembles what are called "cognitive styles," so those are the attributes that will be reviewed here. These styles, like mindfulness, involve a preferred way of viewing the world in general and specific problems in particular.

Some of the main cognitive styles are identified by Carroll (1993, p. 554). They include

1. field independence versus field dependence, which is the extent to which one perceives things independently of their backgrounds (field independence) versus dependently upon their backgrounds (field dependence);

2. scanning, which is the extent to which one scans stimuli extensively versus intensively;

3. breadth of categorizing, which is a consistent preference for broad inclusiveness in categories as opposed to narrow exclusiveness;

4. cognitive complexity versus simplicity, which is the extent to which one structures the world in a complex versus a simple way;

5. reflexivity versus impulsivity, which is the extent to which one thinks carefully before one acts as opposed to acting impulsively;

6. leveling versus sharpening, which is the extent to which one tends to blur similar memories (leveling) or to remember things as very distinct and as less similar than they actually are (sharpeaing);

7. constricted versus flexible control, which is the extent to which one is susceptible to distraction and cognitive interference;

8. tolerance for incongruous or unrealistic experiences, which is the extent to which one is willing to accept perceptions that are at various with conventional expectations.

The mindfulness/mindlessness distinction seems to fit well into this kind of a framework at the same time that it does not seem identical to any of the existing cognitive styles. Thus, Langer's may be one additional cognitive style, arguably, one of the more important ones. Should this be the case, then there is an important caveat to be observed.

The traditional cognitive-styles movement was very active in the 1960s and early 1970s and seemed to provide a fruitful way of integrating the study of personality with the study of cognition. Mindfulness/mindlessness seems to be in this same tradition of being at the interface between personality and cognition. But the cognitive-styles movement hit a dead end, perhaps for several reasons (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 1997). Indeed, a review written more than 20 years ago by Goldstein and Blackman (1978) covets most of the cognitive styles that are still considered contemporary. What happened?

First, the styles referred to specific attributes and seemed neither to derive from any general theory of personality or cognition nor to lead to any general theory of personality or cognition. The cognitive-styles literature thus remained isolated from the rest of psychology and eventually contracted. Second, the measures of cognitive styles never quite lived up to their promise. Most particularly, they did not always correspond well to the construct, and multiple measures of a given construct sometimes did not correspond so well even with each other. Third, it was not clear just how generalizable the cognitive styles were--whether they were a generalized characteristic of a person or more situationally based. In fact, traditional cognitive styles have characteristics both of traits and of states. Fourth and perhaps most importantly, the styles came to be seen as too similar to abilities. Although the original idea was that styles, unlike abilities, are neither good nor bad in themselves, this original idea did not hold. For example, field independence and reflexivity seemed clearly better than field dependence and impulsivity. Furthermore, empirical studies showed the former to be associated with good performance and the latter to be associated with bad performance. For example, field independence proved to be essentially identical to spatial ability (MacLeod, Jackson, & Palmer, 1986). With styles being so closely related to abilities, it became less clear why the field needed a separate construct of styles.

Mindfulness/mindlessness seems to be in this tradition of cognitive styles as well. For the most part, mindfulness seems to be better than mindlessness. Langer (1989, 1997) certainly presents the constructs in this way. At the same time, one might argue that she overstates the case. For example, with motor activities, concentrating hard on the activity and attending carefully to it (e.g., a tennis serve, a golf shot) is more likely to impair performance of the activity than to help it. As another example, it is sometimes better to filter out certain aspects of the environment if they are disturbing but one cannot do anything about them. Thus, suppose one has a disagreeable colleague at work and that colleague shows no signs either or becoming more agreeable or of leaving. If one does not want to leave one's job over such a disagreeable colleague, one might be best off ignoring the colleague as much as possible--that is, not being mindful of the colleague at all if one concludes there is nothing to be done. T est anxiety is yet another case of a person's being overly mindful of something over which he or she has no control, and of thereby damaging his or her performance on that something (a test) as a result.


Mindfulness has shown itself to be a useful construct in understanding a variety of behavior. But its relations to other contructs in cognitive, social, and personality psychology have not yet been fully explored. The goal of this article is to explore some of these interrelations.

Mindfulness/mindlessness probably is more similar to cognitive styles than it is to cognitive abilities or personality traits. Mindfulness/mindlessness possesses many of the same characteristics as do cognitive styles but appears to be identical to none of the styles that have been proposed in the past. Mindfulness, like cognitive styles, is at the interface between cognition and personality. It also has yet to be integrated into larger theories of cognition and personality. It can lend itself to typical- or maximum-performance measurement. It has characteristics both of a state and of a trait. And one pole is likely to be superior to the other pole under most, but not all, circumstances. Strong psychological measurements still need to be developed for mindfulness/mindlessness, as is the case even today for cognitive styles proposed long ago.

ROBERT J. STERNBERG is IBM Professor of Psychology and Education in the Department of Psychology at Yale University.

(*.) Preparation of this article was supported by Grant R206R950001 from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. The statements made in the article do not, however, necessarily reflect the positions of this office or of the U.S. Government.


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