The Psychology of Thinking

Books

John Paul Minda

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    Preface

    The psychology of thinking is a topic that has fascinated me for as long as I’ve been a psychologist. In fact, even before I became a psychologist I was always interested in the process of thinking. My interests in cognition in general, and thinking in particular, are what led me to pursue a career as a cognitive psychologist.

    About me

    Currently, I am an Associate Professor of Psychology and a member of the Brain and Mind Institute at The University of Western Ontario. As a researcher, I am interested in thinking as it relates to concepts and categories. I run a research laboratory that investigates how people learn new categories and represent them with concepts. My students and I also study how conceptual structure interacts with and affects behavioural outcomes. We have done research on medical expertise and on the kinds of reasoning tasks that physicians engage in. Most recently, my students and I have begun to study some of the effects of context and cognitive fatigue on cognitive processes like categorization.

    As an instructor, and as a psychologist in general, I am interested in other aspects of thinking as well. Every year since 2003, I have taught a course on the Psychology of Thinking. In this course, which is aimed at third- and fourth-year psychology students, I cover topics such as concepts and categories, reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving, and expertise. This course has become one of the most popular advanced courses in our calendar, and every year students tell me how much they have enjoyed being able to learn more about this most fundamental of human behaviours.

    Over the last few years, I have put together a large collection of content and material for this course. There are many other excellent resources and texts that cover some aspects of the thinking process. There are excellent books on reasoning, on problem-solving, on judgement, and on decision-making. There are excellent textbooks on critical thinking. And there are many good edited volumes on the psychology of thinking. Despite this, I have often wished for a single, comprehensive textbook on this topic, a textbook that would cover the psychology of thinking as an advanced topic in cognitive psychology and is suitable for undergraduates in a psychology programme and maybe even for graduate students as well. I hope that this textbook can fill that role.

    The aims and scope of this book

    This textbook is intended to serve as the primary text for an upper-year course on Advanced Cognition and/or the Psychology of Thinking. The topics that I will cover represent a deliberately chosen subset of advanced cognition topics that cohere around a general theme of higher-order cognition and thinking: concepts, reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving, language and thought, expertise, and applied thinking. I have grouped these topics together because they are all aspects of higher-order human cognition. Although many of the components of these topics can be found in other, non-human species (similarity, for example) the topics covered in this text are, for the most part, uniquely human.

    A primary goal of this textbook is to provide students with current psychological accounts of the thinking process. The psychology of thinking is a topic that extends much of the information that is typically covered in an undergraduate introductory course on cognitive psychology. In order to provide an overarching structure, I have grouped the topics and chapters together into broad themes. The first theme concerns the organization of human thought. For example, a core aspect of how people think involves the comparison of existing states, stimuli, or precepts with past experience. These mental comparisons form the basis of the thinking process, and they involve the computation of the similarity between mental representations or concepts. And because much of this cognition requires access to memory, I devote a chapter to covering those topics, and explaining how they are involved in the thinking process.

    A second theme is general reasoning and thinking, and several chapters are devoted to how and why people engage in reasoning. Reasoning is at the core of the psychological study of thinking and this text explores deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, and causal reasoning. Another topic in this theme that is likely to have broad appeal is the interaction between language, culture, and thought. This idea goes back as far as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis in the middle of the twentieth century and continues to be of interest to psychologists, anthropologists, and linguists.

    A third theme deals with the behavioural outcomes of thinking. These chapters focus on decision-making, problem-solving, and the role of motivation on the thinking process. I conclude with a chapter on expertise and expert-level thinking, which includes a discussion of the formal expertise of chess, science, and medicine.

    The book is organized in a progressive fashion. Some topics, such as similarity, are introduced early on, so that subsequent chapters can refer to these topics. As often as possible, I have tried to cross-reference chapters within chapters. In the earlier chapters, I have tried to make a note of when these topics will come up again. In later chapters, I have tried to make a note of how those topics relate to the things that were covered earlier. Some readers may find the back-and-forth distracting, but my hope is that it will help to bring a sense of cohesiveness to the entire text.

    I wrote this book with the intention that it would have a broad appeal within the field of Cognitive Psychology. My hope is that it may also be of interest to instructors and lecturers in other fields, such as Cognitive Science, Business, Education, Medicine, and Philosophy. The intention is that the chapters follow the natural progression for a standard semester or half-year course (10–12 weeks). Each chapter is designed to be covered in a week (as 1–2 lectures or as a single seminar discussion), although some chapters could be split over the course of two weeks.

    Acknowledgments and thanks

    I have many people to thank. In a very general sense, I want to thank all of the students who have been enrolled in my Psychology of Thinking courses over the past ten years. Every year I learn something new from them, and I learn new things about the literature as I prepare what I hope are interesting lectures. If I did not enjoy teaching and lecturing so much, and in particular teaching about this topic, I never would have written this text.

    I also have my own graduate students to thank: Ruby Nadler, Sarah Miles, Sarah Devantier, Rahel Rabi, Emily Neilsen, and Karen Zhang. They all contributed to some of the research that went into parts of this book. They also helped to keep my lab running when I was preoccupied with writing the text. I was able to focus on this because of my trust in their ability.

    I also want to thank the editorial staff at Sage Publications. Keri Dickens, who helped with this book from the beginning to the end, provided great feedback and just enough motivation to help me finish. I always appreciated her willingness to allow for the inevitable delays and extensions of deadlines. I want to thank Michael Carmichael, who helped with the initial stages and the proposal. I also want to thank the many reviewers who looked at preliminary versions of each chapter and provided helpful feedback, suggestions, and criticism. To everyone who played a role on the editorial side of things, I especially thank you for your patience with my writing.

    Most of all, I thank my family: my wife Elizabeth and my two daughters Natalie and Sylvie. They put up with my occasional grumpiness as the project neared a deadline. They tolerated late nights as I worked on the draft. They sometimes had to put up with my forgetfulness because I was preoccupied with completing this book. They helped with encouragement. For example, if I was sitting at my desk and was reading the news, catching up on email, or catching up on Facebook, my younger daughter would say “Dad, aren’t you supposed to be working on your book?”…. Sometimes, that’s all the motivation you need.

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