The Reflective System

The RIM refers to the rational, rule-based system of thought as the reflective system. Slow and driven by resources of working memory, this system has limits on its capacity for information processing. It may be disengaged from processing under certain circumstances, but it is capable of generating knowledge via syllogistic inferences. It does so by activating concepts and possible relations between these concepts and then assigning a truth value to the proposition formed by the concepts and the relation. For example, the concepts salad and health may be activated, along with the relation of is/is not. In this case the reflective system would assign the value of true to the configuration, yielding the proposition salad is healthy. If the concept of muffin was activated instead of salad, the truth value might instead be false, yielding the proposition muffin is not healthy.

It is important to note that any other relation might be used beyond is/is not, such as implies/does not imply, causes/does not cause, or is/is not a member of, to name a few. If several related propositions are constructed, new knowledge may be generated by the combination of these propositions. In keeping with the example propositions given above—salad is healthy and muffin is not healthy—an additional proposition of being healthy is good might yield both the conclusion that salad is good and that muffins are not. Because the reflective system is able to assign truth values to statements, rule-based inferences can be drawn in order to maximize the consistency of the resulting representation (Gawronski & Strack, 2004). The ability of this mode of processing to help a person generate and infer conclusions makes it extremely flexible and useful for facilitating many operations typically associated with deliberative thought, including expectancy-value judgments and advanced social behavior (e.g., the discernment of people’s states of belief; see Wimmer & Perner, 1983, for example) and the learning of new connections between concepts without much or any repetition.

The reflective system is limited by boundary conditions that constrain its ability to process information. Two of the most important of these conditions are working memory capacity and arousal. The activation of concepts and relations and the transformation of the resulting propositions are assumed to take place in the working memory (Baddeley, 1986). These dynamics provide a functional limit to the complexity and scope of reflective operations, in that the capacity of working memory may be insufficient to contain all the required propositions for a given operation concurrently. This statement is bolstered by studies showing that an impairment of working-memory capacity through a manipulation of cognitive load impairs logical reasoning (De Neys, 2006; DeWall, Baumeister, & Masicampo, 2008). Arousal, by contrast, affects reflective processing in a nonlinear fashion resembling the Yerkes- Dodson Law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908)—intermediate levels of arousal facilitate the operation of the reflective system. Evidence exists that high levels of arousal reduce complexity in social judgments (Baron, 2000; Lambert et al., 2003; Paulhus & Lim, 1994), whereas low arousal, characteristic in a state of fatigue, for example, is also associated with lowered capacity to engage in reflective processing.

Important and ubiquitous cognitive phenomena rely upon the reflective system’s ability to assign truth values to relations between concepts, an example of which is negation. The RIM predicts that negations of propositions can be processed only under circumstances in which the reflective system can be engaged, that is, under conditions endowed with resources sufficient for efforts to engage in processing. This statement differs from models based on the assumption that negations may be “tagged” onto propositions once and for all and henceforth no longer require reflective engagement (e.g., Gilbert, 1991), and it is supported by evidence that negations require cognitive resources to process (Wason, 1959).

Reflective processing is accompanied by a state of noetic awareness of whether something is the case or not. This awareness may sometimes be accompanied by a particular feeling that is processed consciously, a state of experiential awareness. It should be noted, however, that some operations in the reflective system may require so few resources that they can be processed without corresponding noetic awareness or a feeling of intentionality (Deutsch, Kordts-Freudinger, Gawronski, & Strack, 2009).

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