Think about a person who, one day, was late to work, twisted her ankle because she had to run to catch the bus, and almost got fired. She blamed it all on her phone alarm that didn’t sound—she judged that single cause (the alarm) as responsible for many consequences. Well, it turns out these kinds of judgments (what social psychologists like me call “causal attributions”) have to do with our thinking styles–whether we are more holistic or analytic individuals. Our thinking styles affect how we make sense of the world around us.
What are thinking styles? Imagine you’re standing in front of a forest. If you’re a holistic thinker, you’re taking in the whole forest, considering how the trees grow together, the way the sun filters through the leaves, and how all this might affect wildlife. You see it as a big, interconnected ecosystem. But if you’re an analytic thinker, you’re probably focusing on individual trees. You’re thinking about the type of tree, its age, and the kind of leaves that it has.
These holistic or analytic modes of thinking can be linked to how we make attributions regarding the causes and the consequences of events and behaviors. Previous research had already shown that holistic individuals tend to make more complex causal attributions than their analytic counterparts (Maddux & Yuki, 2006, Spina et al., 2010). Compared to analytic thinkers, holistic thinkers attribute the causes of behaviors and events more to the situation, they expect that small causes can produce big consequences (and vice versa), and they think that causes can have a distal impact on consequences. In our study, we went beyond these effects and looked at two unexplored dimensions in the attribution domain: the number of the consequences presented, and the valence of those consequences (whether they are positive or negative).
In a paper recently published at Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2023), my colleagues and I conducted seven studies to test whether holistic-analytic thinking styles are linked to people’s judgments about how much effect a potential cause had in producing either a single or multiple consequences. Moreover, the consequences could have only one valence (i.e., all consequences are positive or negative) or a mixed valence (i.e., some positive and some negative). Some of our studies were conducted in the lab, while others relied on participants recruited through the CloudResearch site, which is increasingly being used as a primary source for recruiting research participants in the field of social psychology (Anderson et al., 2019).
The first thing we did with our participants was to measure or manipulate their holistic-analytic thinking style. In some studies, we classified them as holistic or analytic thinkers using a well-validated scale of thinking styles (Martín-Fernández et al., 2022). This scale asked them statements like “It is more important to pay attention to the whole context rather than the details.” As you can imagine by now, if you agree with this type of statement, you are more of a holistic thinker, and if you disagree, you are more an analytic thinker. In other studies, we modified momentarily whether they would think in more holistic or analytic ways by using a visual task. This task consisted of identifying a big letter that was composed of small letters. Imagine a big “H” drawn by using small “F”s . To make people temporarily holistic thinkers, we instructed them to identify the big letter. On the other hand, to make people temporarily analytic thinkers, we instructed them to identify the small letter (Smith & Redden, 2020).
Then, we placed participants in the role of judges, tasked with evaluating situations that mirrored real-life dilemmas. These ranged from workplace situations to societal issues, such as climate change. In some studies, we manipulated whether the cause in these situations produced either single or multiple consequences. In other studies, the cause in the event produced either two negative consequences or a mix of both positive and negative consequences. We intended to see if the ‘forest’ thinkers (holistic) would reach different conclusions than the ‘tree’ thinkers (analytic).
In our first study, we examined scenarios with different outcomes, either all positive or all negative, versus a mix of both. For example, the mixed scenario involved a cause (a lieutenant sending his soldiers to take control of a hill) that produced a positive consequence (taking control of the hill) and a negative consequence (suffering casualties), while in the scenario with the two outcomes of the same valence, the soldiers did not take control of the hill (negative) and suffered casualties (negative). We found that those who tend to see the bigger picture – the holistic thinkers – were more inclined than analytic thinkers to assign responsibility when consequences were mixed. It was as if the complexity of these situations, where things were not either black or white, resonated more with a holistic style of thinking.
Then we moved on to a more causal approach by inducing our participants to think either holistically or analytically. We changed the script, presenting them with a scenario on climate change as the cause and varying the number of consequences produced by this cause. For example, in the multiple consequences condition, climate change caused glacier melting, reduced access to clean water, increased extreme weather events, threats to plant and animal species, and economic burdens. In the single consequence condition, climate change only caused one of these outcomes. Intriguingly, when faced with multiple consequences, those nudged into holistic thinking attributed a greater level of responsibility to the cause than those in the analytic group. It appears the more variables at play, the more holistic thinkers felt the weight of responsibility.
With the first studies, we began to decipher a puzzle: the more nuanced the scenario, because of the mixed valence or the number of the consequences presented, the more holistic thinkers stepped up to say, “There’s more to consider here.” Analytic thinkers, with their laser focus on specific elements, seemed more comfortable assigning responsibility in straightforward situations. Thus, we wanted to be sure that the complexity of the consequences was the critical factor behind our results. So, in our last study we manipulated the complexity of the consequences along with the number. If we were correct and all that mattered was the complexity, then even presenting a single consequence, if framed as highly complex, would produce our effects. And it did!
We varied the level of complexity (high or low) independently of the number of consequences. We created a condition in which participants saw a diagram with a cause and its direct consequence, linked by an arrow (what we called the “one-consequence simple” condition). Then, we varied the scenario to make it more complex by presenting the consequence spread in the context with different arrows pointing between them (what we called the “one-consequence complex” condition).
Similarly, the multiple consequences but simple condition presented the cause as producing several consequences but in a very direct manner. However, in the multiple consequences complex condition, several consequences were portrayed in a net of interconnections with the cause, visually spread, and with arrows pointing to most of them. Interestingly, all had to do with the complexity of the consequences presented. As we expected, holistic thinkers were attuned to more complex consequences, no matter the number of those, when attributing responsibility.
In today’s socially conscious business landscape, companies are often judged not just on financial performance but on their broader impact on society and the environment. Understanding that holistic thinkers may be more sensitive to the wider consequences of corporate actions can guide how businesses communicate their corporate social responsibility initiatives.
Looking beyond business, our findings have broader implications for societal issues. They can influence how we construct narratives around accountability, teach problem-solving skills in education, and even how we approach large-scale global issues that require both detailed attention and an understanding of complex systems.
Anderson, C. A., Allen, J. J., Plante, C., Quigley-McBride, A., Lovett, A., & Rokkum, J. N. (2019). The MTurkification of social and personality psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(6), 842-850. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0146167218798821
Maddux, W. W., & Yuki, M. (2006). The “ripple effect”: Cultural differences in perceptions of the consequences of events. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(5), 669-683. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167205283840
Martín-Fernández, M., Requero, B., Zhou, X., Gonçalves, D., & Santos, D. (2022). Refinement of the Analysis-Holism Scale: A cross-cultural adaptation and validation of two shortened measures of analytic versus holistic thinking in Spain and the United States. Personality and Individual Differences, 186, 111322. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111322
Smith, R. W., & Redden, J. P. (2020). The role of holistic processing in simultaneous consumption. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 91, 104023. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.104023
Spina, R. R., Ji, L. J., Guo, T., Zhang, Z., Li, Y., & Fabrigar, L. (2010). Cultural differences in the representativeness heuristic: Expecting a correspondence in magnitude between cause and effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(5), 583-597. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167210368278