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In his engaging new book, Culture and Cognition, Wayne Brekhus takes the reader on an intriguing tour of the cultural character of cognition, offering clues about how to understand people more deeply. Three areas in particular caught our attention: thinking styles, classification mindsets, and memory.

1.   Thinking Styles

Thinking styles vary depending on one’s familiarity with the object of thought. We use automatic cognition when in familiar contexts and deliberate cognition when in unfamiliar contexts. When a disruption occurs in our ordinary routines, like the Keurig coffee maker doesn’t start like usual, we are flung from automatic to deliberate cognition. Deliberate cognition, in short, is the thinking style of unfamiliar experiences.

Most people are naturally attracted to the ease of automatic thinking and will try to prevent disruptions that can lead to deliberate thinking. That’s why habits have such a strong pull on us – they employ automatic thinking and to break free, one must engage in the deliberate form.

Despite the cultural preference for automatic thinking, the deliberate thinking required of unfamiliar contexts can be experienced as fun and exciting. Examples include: experiencing different cultures, learning new languages, trying unfamiliar foods, etc.

Learnings: Deliberate thinking can be tiresome. Design should seek to minimize deliberate thinking, unless it can be reframed as enjoyable or exciting. New products, if not familiar enough in design, can require too much deliberate thinking. New products should seek a short deliberate to automatic thinking conversion.    

2.   Classification Mindsets

People use three classification mindsets for ordering the world around them: rigid, fuzzy, and flexible. These vary across cultural groupings. The rigid mind primarily sees the world as fitting into strict categories, seeking to avoid disorder or impurity. Ambiguities, for this mindset, are disturbing. Such mindsets are common in orthodox communities and communities in danger of disappearing. The fuzzy mindset enjoys blending categories and is suspicious of social boundaries. The flexible mind is a blending of the two.

Learnings: Ethnography can uncover the kinds of classification mindsets that operate around different product and service categories. This will help determine if consumers are ready for hybridized designs – or products and services that appear to blend two established designs. For example, the Honda Ridgeline can be understood as a blending of truck and SUV design cues. Differing classification mindsets might help explain why it might appear ugly to many life-long truck owners, but more appealing to SUV drivers.

3.   Memory

Memory is culturally shaped so that many aspects of the past are ignored as out of frame, while a few are accentuated as salient. People highlight, eliminate, and rearrange elements to construct a narrative past that fits within their present context. Yet not all past events have equal weight. First time experiences or “jumps from zero to one” have more significance in memory than subsequent experiences.

Learnings: The new user’s experience should be carefully considered in product and service design as this first encounter could hold greater weight in recollections than subsequent use experiences.