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A Short Overview of Reflective and Impulsive Styles of Thinking

Theories of Reflection

The idea that human behavior is based on active, reflective thought guided by the principle of attaining beneficial things is old and makes intuitive sense. It is difficult to argue why people would actively decide to act in a fashion that they know is bad for them without some belief that the action would ultimately be positive. In this conception of human thought, negative outcomes can be explained by a lack of information. The Greek philosopher Socrates, for example, proposed that people would otherwise act in ways that were good for them.

From a social psychological perspective, this kind of thinking is exemplified in expectancy-value theories and the concept of homo oeconomicus (e.g., Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). The theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1985) is an established example of an expectancy-value model (Conner & Armitage, 1998). It depicts behavior as a function of several specific mental factors. In this conceptualization the three determinants of behavior are the attitude toward the behavior, the subjective norm relevant to the behavior, and the perceived behavioral control over the behavior. An attitude toward a specific behavior is generated by multiplying the evaluation of a possible perceived outcome of the behavior (a value) by the perceived likelihood of that outcome (an expectancy) and then summing the results of this multiplication for all possible outcomes. Similarly, the subjective norm is calculated by multiplying the actor’s motivation to comply with another person’s expectation by the perceived likelihood that that person holds that expectation over all persons. By contrast, perceived behavioral control is a function of the perceived power of behavior-inhibiting or behavior-facilitating factors multiplied by the likelihood that the actor has access to these factors.

The assumption in the theory of planned behavior is, therefore, that a human actor’s calculation of these three determinants of behavior is optimally based on all available information. Once the determinants are established, the actor will integrate them for all possible behaviors and select the best option. This behavior is then initiated via a behavioral intention.

This idea is echoed in various domains, both historically and in more modern contexts, such as organizational psychology (Vroom, 1964) , addiction research (Sutton, Marsh, & Matheson, 1987) , and education (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). There is solid empirical support for the ability of expectancy-value models to predict intentions and behavior (e.g., Armitage & Conner, 2001). However, even the strongest empirical studies do not conclude that this kind of thinking can completely predict behavior. In particular, it seems unlikely that behavior occurring without conscious thought could be dependent on this kind of deliberative, intentional processing (e.g., Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978). Therefore, one must consider alternative mental processes that are characterized by less deliberative processing.

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