[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, June 2014]

    American psychologist, Herman Witkin, proposed in 1962 an interesting model for how people think.  It’s been subjected to all kinds of research and criticism over the past half century, or course.  So I find it gives a useful continuum for people that dovetails well with my own professional experience.

    Witkin suggested that some of us think in a context-INDEPENDENT way, and others in a DEPENDENT way.  What does this mean?

    Context-independent thinkers (CITs) can figure out problems that only have a limited number of solutions.  They’re able to tune out Real World “noise,” that isn’t relevant to the problem at hand, and focus only on the solutions possible within the situation.  These are the folks who are good at math, Sudoku, number puzzles and computer programming.  Each of those domains is basically self-contained; all the information you need to figure them out is given to you out front, you just need the ability to shuffle it around or arrange it in your head.  No outside experience is necessary.  For that reason, context-independent thinkers tend to shine early in life.  They’re the “math brains,” the “computer whizzes,” the precocious kids who outperform even many of the adults in their lives as early as grade school.

    By contrast, context-dependent thinkers (CDTs) tend to come into their abilities a little later in life.  This is because unlike their precocious peers, they must draw on their own life experiences, study how others approach the problem and make conclusions for what has worked in the past.  You have to have a past to be able to draw on it.  Rather than excel at “air tight” problems, with preexisting strategies and limited solutions, they do better with figuring out “open ended” problems, where solutions have to be assembled by building relationships with others, exploring resources and often stitching together combinations of strategies based on best judgement.  CDTs are more comfortable with ambiguity, since the “messy” situations in which they excel simply don’t have clean, ready-made solutions waiting to be uncovered by a discerning intellect.  If CITs excel at space, time and numbers, CDTs are better with literature, history or social science; areas whose problems can’t be separated from the contexts of culture, human nature and past experience.   

    Each type has benefits and drawbacks.

    CITs, for example, are more likely to jump from one problem to the next.  They are passionate and invested in solving problems, often working long hours and neglecting food or sleep to find an answer.  However, since their abilities mature quickly, they tend to use up challenges fast and want to move on to the next challenge immediately.  Since they peak quickly, they have less chance to learn frustration tolerance.  One of the biggest challenges they may face is that of boredom; they struggle with sustaining effort and focus on activities that aren’t always fascinating or that have necessary “slog” elements to them that have to be endured.  This inability so sustain interest means they may accomplish less on longer-term projects than their relevant talents would suggest.

    CDTs, on the other hand, must contend with the frustrations and setbacks that come of late-maturing capabilities.  Have you had the experience, for example, of struggling with school work, and despite your best efforts, you squeak by with a barely sufficient grade, while a classmate or sibling who “never cracked a book” seemed to always get high marks?  Enduring and persevering against this constant uphill struggle can be quite discouraging at younger ages.  One of the biggest challenges CDTs may face is that of morale or self-esteem.  On the other hand, they will ultimately learn the value of patience better than their CIT counterparts, and can take on long-term projects whose drudge elements must be endured before the rewards become apparent.        

    Of course, I always extend a word of caution with these types of useful typologies, as no one fits into them perfectly.  People are complex.  But as a model, Witkins idea may help explain some of the frustrations you’ve experienced based on which type you most favor.