Hot and Cold Cognition

Recently there has been increased attention to the theory of hot and cold cognition, especially exemplified in the volume by Kahneman on fast and slow thinking.

This reminded me of my initial foray into this area. I noted in particular, relevance to anxiety and anger that interpose between the stimulus and the emotion was an automatic thought; so labeled because it happened rapidly and without any volition on the part of the individual. We later found that individuals responded to loss or gain with the analogous automatic thoughts and the consequent emotion. What was of significance was the fact that the automatic thoughts represented “overkill”; that is, they constituted exaggerations or misinterpretations of the stimulus situation.

Hot cognitions take the verbal form “He insulted me and I punish him/ kill him (anger /rage) or “He is threatening me and I must escape” (anxiety).In the case of psychopathology, there were cognitive distortions of the initial stimulus situation. These constituted an important part of the psychiatric condition: when the underlying pathogenic beliefs were rectified, the individual’s condition improved.

Cold cognition represents affectless, ordinary thinking and involves judgment, problem-solving and correcting of the cognitive distortions. For example, an individual can use cold cognition in evaluating the merit of a candidate for office, but when enraged, does not have sufficiently matured judgment to understand the consequences of harming or killing somebody ( for example, life imprisonment or execution).

Now fast forward to the present, there is a good deal of argument going on as to whether teenagers, say at the age of sixteen, have enough intellectual capacity to vote and at the same time, it is presumed that they cannot be executed for a capital crime because they do not have the cognitive resources to understand the implications of their crime. The solution to this puzzle is as follows: the teenagers do have intellectual resources –in other words, the cold cognition to deal with ordinary, non-threatening situations, to view objectively their cognitive distortions and correct their cognitive biases/distortions, but do lack sufficient cognitive resources to be able to answer their effective distorted responses to situations. In other words, their capacities for cold cognition has not been built up sufficiently to be able to deal with fight or flight reactions that are involved in capital crime.

The above formulation, of course, has an application to the treatment of our severely mentally ill. They are particularly prone to view their overreactions as justified and appear to have the capacity to view these objectively. It is possible, however, to train them in correcting their misinterpretations and biased reactions.