Shifting Cognitive Styles: Changes in the Way We Think

October 3rd, 2009

Several years ago, a church asked me to help develop a midweek postmodern experience for their young adults. After reading the literature and attending the seminars, I had definite thoughts about what form it should take: Avoid the lecture/teacher/expert, allowing the group to discover truth communally; be less concerned with program and specific outcomes and more focused on who's present and what they experience together; and create an atmosphere designed to value people for who they are, not just what they do.

Then we had our first meeting. The church is located in the midst of a huge hi-tech industry full of budding corporate professionals. They weren't the artsy people I'd been told to anticipate. People came in the room asking what time the program would start and conclude and seemed terrified by round tables and by their leader, who was way too underdressed to be theirleader. When it came time to “get real” around the table, very little interaction took place. Even though we weren't asking people to bare their souls, few were comfortable with the lack of anonymity, and those who were comfortable elicited raised eyebrows for “sharing too much” by the rest.

I had obviously misread my community. While the postmodern lens had alerted me to a changing culture, it hadn't given me effective tools for responding to this change. While I think philosophy is worthy of our attention, there are other social and cultural disciplines that may provide a clearer understanding of what's really shifting in society and better inform our work in youth ministry.

The need for cultural relevance as Christians isn't a new one. Missionaries have struggled with this in a more pronounced way as they've entered cultures far different from their own to share the gospel in a relevant manner.

We've all heard horror stories of missionaries trying to westernize people once they embrace the gospel of Christ. But those on the mission front have learned and continue to learn more and more how to allow Christ to transform those in a different culture rather than imposing their own culture on others. Being sensitive to one another builds trust, and trust is vital in all relationships. To effectively present Christ in the context of culture, we must have trust within the culture to which we hope to introduce Christ.

Anthropologists have used comparative tools and taxonomies to better understand cultures with little bias. One such taxonomy, the Basic Values Model developed by Anthropologist Dr. Marvin K. Mayers, has been of great help to missionaries in understanding the cognitive styles that are valued by a given culture. Because these values reveal the way people think, the model allows for practical application, since one can predict people's possible responses to a given situation.

The Basic Values Model in a Nutshell

The Basic Values Model consists of twelve cognitive styles making six value pairs found in all human beings and cultures. Unlike the Myers-Briggs and other taxonomies for understanding personality, the Basic Values Model helps us not only comprehend the individual, but also whole cultures, because these values are often shared.

Time <-------------------------------------------------> Event

Dischotomistic <-------------------------------------------> Holistic

Crisis <-------------------------------------------> Non-Crisis

Task as Goal <-------------------------------------------> Person as Goal

Prestige Achieved <-------------------------------------------> Prestige Ascribed

Vulnerability as Weakness <-------------------------------------------> Vulnerability as Strength

Though each one of these value pairs is distinct from the others, the right side values typically show up together, as do the left. America has tended to dominate the left side of the spectrum, even though individual members of the culture may not completely align themselves with these particular values. They're tightly woven into our culture and our way of thinking.

While we may hold to certain values, we must realize that the values are amoral— neither side is more right than the other. Learning to consider the values of others shows love and builds trust.

What's more, these values are learned values; to date, nobody has been able to prove any type of genetic relationship between these cognitive styles and the biology of those who hold them. If these values are learned, they have the potential to shift and change. While change is typically slow and incremental, the infrastructure of the United States (communication, government, education) allows the opportunity for radical shifts in a shorter period of time. As the mixture of people from various backgrounds begins to shape the makeup of Americans, it makes sense that we see some shifting in cognitive preferences.

Description of the Basic Values

The following descriptors are adapted from The Basic Values,by Marvin K. Mayers (1982, preliminary edition, not published) and Ministering Cross- Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin Keene Mayers (Baker, 1986). The descriptions of the cognitive styles refer to each in its extreme expression. Since these are values, you can hold part of each within you. I've provided some personal examples and observations after each pair to help you visualize the distinctions between the two as we experience them in real life.

Time Orientation

Concerned with seconds, minutes, and hours; when something begins and when it ends; how frequently something is done in a time period; and how orderly it's done (i.e., in relation to schedule and range of punctuality).

A. I'm concerned about how time affects what I'm doing.

B. I'm concerned with punctuality. Things should have a start and an end time, and these should be kept.

C. I set goals that are realistic for the time given and tend to think in terms of short-, mid-, and long-range planning.

D. I believe there's an important relationship between time and money. So I try to accomplish the most possible in the time available.

E. I experience frustration and distress when the schedule is disrupted, which can cause me to cease concentrating on the present as I readjust my schedule.

Time orientation is familiar to Americans; we love our watches and the precision they offer. Ron Hafer, chaplain at Biola University, used to inform those of us speaking in chapel that the Holy Spirit left at 10:15 (when chapel was scheduled to end). While he was joking, there was a real need in the time-oriented culture of the university to respect time (people mentally checked out when they were going to be late for class or an exam). Effective spiritual communication was enhanced when speakers stayed within the time framework.

Event Orientation

Concerned with who's there, what's going on, and how the event can be embellished with light, sound, touch, body movement, etc.

A. I'm not too concerned with time periods.

B. I'm more interested in the event—bringing people together without planning too formal a schedule and seeing what develops.

C. I'll work on a problem until it's resolved or exhausted regardless of time.

D. I'm not terribly concerned with the future, but live in the here and now. Likewise, I'm not too interested or concerned with history.

E. I don't rely on the experience of others but rather trust my own experience implicitly. I have little confidence in others' experience unless it's communicated through experienced-based sharing.

I was once asked to do a magic show and sermon for a Sunday morning service at a Hispanic church in Orange County. I'll never forget arriving thirty minutes early to find no one at the church. A few minutes before services were slated to begin, people started drifting in. We started a good forty minutes late, but nobody was concerned except me. The pastor sat behind the organ making sound effects as I did the performance portion of my program. When I was finished, he wanted more! Three times he sent me to the back to prepare something else while the congregation sang. When I assured him I had nothing left to share, he began interviewing me. We were seriously running over, yet not one person seemed to care—they were together and enjoying the event. This day is one of the most memorable worship experiences in my life.

Dichotomistic Orientation

Sets up distinctions, divisions, and categories; concerned with here or there, right or wrong, and this or that; considers the part (in a sense) more important than the whole.

A. I see life in polar opposites, black and white, here and there, myself and others, right and wrong.

B. It's easy for me to judge people based on these polarizing dichotomies.

C. It's important for me to feel that I'm right and am thinking the right thoughts.

D. I enjoy taxonomies (like this one) and other systems that allow me to classify and organize experiences and ideas.

E. Understanding how I fit in gives me a sense of security.

Holism Orientation

Concerned with the whole (and the parts in relations to the whole); sees patterns and configurations to be important.

A. I see life as a whole, and I see all the parts having a vital role in creating the whole.

B. It's very difficult for me to make evaluations without being able to see it in context.

C. I don't like taxonomies like this that try to put me in a category.

D. I enjoy being able to live an integrated life of thought and action, whether intentional or not.

You can see a great distinction between typical “white” preaching (dichotomistic) and “black” preaching (holistic) in these two value pairs. The dichotomist breaks the whole passage into parts and deals with each element separately and creates messages that isolate a topic or issue. You'll see the dichotomist embrace “three point” preaching, for example. The person who tends to be more holistic takes one theme and approaches it from several perspectives, often nonlinearly. An entire passage will touch on many different topics of life and will encompass many ages and life stages.

Crisis Orientation

Focuses on one alternative, that position being the only correct one. Depends on a sharply defined authority system to maintain that alternative and find closure on that perspective.

A. I seek experts in a field to advise me in or validate the conclusions I make.

B. I believe that history is essential for preventing the repetition of mistakes already made and finding solutions.

C. There's nothing entirely new; similar crises have occurred, and an expert can relay the needed information to solve my present situation.

D. I believe learning happens best when I can understand the instructor and can reproduce what's been taught.

Non-Crisis Orientation

Considers many alternatives, any of them valid and worthy of selection now or later. Therefore, authority is in keeping with alternatives. Closure is delayed and less intense.

A. When faced with making a decision, I prefer to have several potential options.

B. I believe crises are unique, and I seek new solutions for each.

C. I get frustrated in lecture situations where experts speak and I don't have opportunities to share my insights and interact with others.

D. Sometimes when revisiting a problem, I'll choose a different solution from what I chose in a previous similar situation.

Watch people who live in areas plagued by extreme weather. When the rain falls and the expert predictions claim the lake will rise and cause a flood, the crisis person will take that expert opinion and begin sandbagging and making plans for evacuation. The non-crisis thinker looks outside and can't imagine the lake rising that much. Even if it does, what's the best response to the rising waters? The non-crisis person doesn't move until the crisis is knocking on the door.

As a person who tends to be non-crisis, I typically surround myself with people who are crisis-oriented and value them for the balance they offer me. More often than not, my non-crisis orientation allows me to dream and lead into risky projects, but the crisis people often help me avoid the “crash and burn.”

Vulnerability as Weakness Orientation

Covers any error or weakness so it's not perceived as personal weakness.

A. I double check my work and operate in a methodical, organized manner to avoid making errors.

B. I hate admitting I've made a mistake and avoid sharing stories that expose my weaknesses.

C. I avoid being involved in things that are new and experimental.

D. I enjoy arguing a point to the end.

Vulnerability as Strength Orientation

Permits admission of error, assumes no loss of respect when there's evidence of weakness, error, or the like.

A. I don't find it difficult to share my mistakes and failures with others.

B. I'm not terribly concerned about making errors.

C. I enjoy sharing stories that reveal my mistakes and weaknesses.

D. I talk openly about personal areas of my life.

E. I enjoy being involved in what's new and experimental.

A youth pastor shares his past struggles as a teenager with sexual purity (or some other topic) in very open terms. Those viewing vulnerability as strength appreciate the openness. Those viewing vulnerability as weakness aren't impressed by his transparency—and even see him as weak.

This can create huge issues when we consider that younger generations value transparency and vulnerability more than older Americans do. Likewise, if we're parents or youth workers who see vulnerability as a weakness, we can tend to lose respect for students who are open about their inner needs, and we may have difficulty connecting with the group as a whole.

A small group discussion isn't going to go well if a group leans toward vulnerability as weakness. You'll only get the safest responses, if you get any at all.

People who see vulnerability as a weakness are very thorough. Engineers and architects trend this way, and aren't we glad they do! Seeing vulnerability as a weakness doesn't mean a person isn't true to herself or is performance-oriented in an unhealthy manner. Cultures that perceive vulnerability as a weakness often have strong senses of community as they actively try not to humiliate others or show off in areas that might make others look less capable.

The Bible affirms and denounces behaviors related to both these orientations in their extremes. Both can bring glory to God in worthy expression and lead to sin in another expression.

Task as Goal Orientation

Sets up timed goals to achieve some objective.

A. I'm concerned with specific goals and completing those goals.

B. I find my deepest friendships with those who have goals similar to my own.

C. I will complete my task, even if I must abandon people and go it alone.

Person as Goal (Interaction) Orientation

Interaction with others is valued more than task completion.

A. I'm more interested in interacting with others than achieving a given task.

B. I tend to sacrifice my given tasks to spend time with others—particularly in conversation.

C. I'll break rules and miss appointments if they interfere with my interaction with other people.

Friday night before the lock-in, you're on a ladder holding a poster and you need some tape. You ask Adam, one of your students, to go to the office and get you some tape. Adam is people-oriented, so before going he talks to others and finds someone to accompany him to the office. Once in the office, he visits with the church secretary and the pastor who's heading home for the weekend. Meanwhile, you wait. When you show your frustration, these people will have a hard time understanding why you're upset. Interaction with others is more important than the task; that's just the way they think.

Task-oriented people think in terms of completed tasks and often seem to ignore or overlook people to get the job done. These people don't necessarily make good greeters, because they'll get sidetracked by tasks that need completion rather than focusing on people. It doesn't mean that people aren't important to the task-oriented person; they simply see completing appropriate tasks as the best way to serve people.

Prestige Achieved Orientation

Causes one to work to gain others' respect. Prestige is assigned to the role.

A. I believe prestige is achieved and must be achieved again and again to be maintained.

B. Formal credentials mean little to me; what's important is what this person means to me.

C. I consider the opinions and statements made by people whether they have credentials or not.

Prestige Ascribed Orientation

Develops criteria for ascription of respect and prestige, the machinery for receiving this and living up to the expectations of one's ascribed status, and the motivation to live up to that status. Prestige is assigned to both the person and the role that one fills in society.

A. I believe prestige is obtained by the social rank or standing one has within society.

B. Credentials and rank are very important to me.

C. I enjoy socializing with people of similar rank and/or status to my own.

D. I expect others to respect my rank and/or status.

American culture values accomplishments and has many formalities for affirming people and their places in society. We award people for being number one, getting the gold, being the first to innovate, etc.

However, just because a football team wins one Super Bowl doesn't give them a permanent standing in the world. They have to keep winning, or their prestige as a franchise vanishes.

The American concept of the has-been affirms the reality that position isn't secure forever—one must continue to achieve. We even think of respect as something that must be earned, making Scripture that mandates we show honor for our parents difficult to swallow.

Other cultures ascribe status and honor to people simply because of who they are (kings and monarchs, for example). Often this is what gets foreign governments in trouble—leaders are respected because they hold office (even when elected), not necessarily because of their performance or qualifications. In some cultures, family name or tribe of origin is a determining factor in one's prestige.

What to Make of These Basic Values

Because the Basic Values are cognitive styles, they determine not only how we think, but also how we learn. Since much of youth ministry has its roots in fulfilling the Great Commission (making disciples and teaching them to obey Christ's commandments, Mt 28:19), a shift in these styles will have a profound impact on our effectiveness.

It's beyond the scope of this article to determine whether these cognitive styles have shifted in our society or whether we're just discovering better modes of teaching a generation. But it does make sense that we consider these values both personally and in the context of the communities we serve.

In responding to their values we have three potential responses:

  1. Ignore Their Values
    When people experience a derivation from the norm, they tend to respond by alienating themselves from others or acting out in frustration. If we truly love and care for people, this would appear to be an insufficient response.
  2. Give in to Their Values
    Helping people grow within the context of their learned values will allow you to achieve many great accomplishments in their development. Sensitivity will build trust.
  3. Stretch Their Values
    There comes a time when it's good to stretch people out of their comfort zones, but doing this without causing alienation or frustration requires much thought and love. Growth requires that we experiment outside our comfort zones, but we do so in reasonable measure. Someone afraid of heights might climb a ladder, but going to the top of the St. Louis Arch might be too much. The wise leader carefully reflects on what exercises allow for healthy growth experiences outside of what one is accustomed to avoid the ill effects of going too far too fast.

Values and Ministry

Learning in the American church tends to favor the cognitive styles on the left side of the values spectrum with lectures, linear curriculum, topical discussions, emphasis on popular speakers and authors, highly programmed gatherings, and the like. Most of the youth pastors I associate with seem to live more toward the right side of the spectrum, so frustration is inevitable if their values are vastly different from the rest of the church. More frustration sets in as we utilize leadership forms and learning styles from the right side of the spectrum only to have parents and students with cognitive values on the left experience the same alienation and frustration—launching a vicious cycle of conflicting values.

Many disenfranchised from the church trend to the right side of the spectrum as well. Many of the artists and influencers of our day have achieved notoriety because of these different values, but let's not forget that there are many other non-churched that hold to the left side of the spectrum. Our goal is to be relevant to all.

It's my belief that much tension within the church today and its inability to relate to culture is connected to insensitivity to these basic values. More practical than understanding postmodern philosophy, increased sensitivity to these cognitive styles can help us relate to the culture in which we serve our local communities. An understanding of this model can also benefit us as we deal with transitional periods (i.e. postmodernism) between subcultures in our church holding differing values. Ultimately, however, this model is most helpful for us learning to value other people who may hold values different from our own and help us truly show them love in how we minister to and with them.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.