Left-brain or right-brain? Creative or critical? Analytic or holistic? We love to divide the world into simple dichotomies.
You’ve probably heard that left-brain dominant people are supposed to be more logical, while right-brain people are more creative. But there’s actually no scientific evidence to support that idea.
What we do know, however, is that some of us are more “analytic” while others are more “holistic” in our dominant cognitive approach.
In my latest research with colleagues Steven Grover and Stephen Teo, I have developed a short survey to measure these individual differences in thinking style.
Knowing your own and others’ cognitive style is essential for mutual understanding and informed decisions. Learning how you and those around you process information can help you to become a more effective communicator, strategist and leader.
Analytic vs holistic style
Analytic thinkers focus on individual objects, assigning them to categories based on their attributes. Holistic thinkers consider the context as a whole, focusing on the relationships between objects.
For example, when asked to describe a dining table, an analytic thinker might say it is made of dark wood and can seat six people. A holistic thinker may instead explain it is a space for getting together and sharing a meal.
While analytic thinkers seek to understand cause and effect by examining the characteristics and motivations of individuals, holistic thinkers examine the wider circumstances and the interactions between people.
Analytic thinkers tend to categorise statements as being true or false. Holistic thinkers often transcend contradictions and find truth in even opposing ideas. Both approaches are valuable, particularly if we acknowledge our cognitive biases and appreciate diverse perspectives as complementing our own.
No, you weren’t born that way
None of us are born as analytic or holistic thinkers. We learn these patterns from our environment. We have access to both analytic and holistic cognitive approaches, but a dominant and socially reinforced preference emerges through our interactions with others.
Think of these thinking styles as sets of cognitive tools to interpret and deal with the challenges of daily life.
These tools were developed long ago, based on how people in different cultures interacted with one another and what they believed was important.
The precepts of analytic thinking were formulated in ancient Greece around 200-500BCE, with philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle seeking to understand the world through logic, inference and the discovery of rules.
The principles of holistic thinking were established in ancient China around the same time. Prominent Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius and Laozi advanced an understanding of the world based on harmony, balance and the acceptance of inevitable cyclical change.
These social contexts led to the development of two very different cognitive approaches.
So how come Westerners aren’t all analytic thinkers, and Easterners aren’t all holistic thinkers?
Well, as people have moved between places, jobs and social circles over the past 2000 years these mental toolkits have been picked up, shared and embraced along the way. It’s essentially no different to how potatoes were introduced to the Irish and coffee to Italians in the 16th century.
The result is that there now tends to be more cultural diversity within societies than between them – including in thinking styles.
Using this quiz
We’ve made the Holistic Cognition Quiz to help you understand your own unique thinking style.
It’s likely to show that you use a mixture of analytic and holistic approaches, with one that’s more dominant. Building self-awareness by better understanding how you think will help you work to your strengths and appreciate the strengths of others.