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Science Speaker Adam Alter: Thinking About Thinking
Science | February 27, 2013

Science Speaker Adam Alter: Thinking About Thinking

In a new talk with Edge.org, science speaker and NYU Professor Adam Alter discussed the role that metacognition plays in our lives. He isn't studying what people are thinking, so much as what is it like to think. As he explains there are two layers to our thought process: the basic level where we process thoughts, and an "overlayed experience" where we think about how these thoughts affect us. While we think about something, we simultaneously wonder if we are having a hard time processing that thought and if we fully comprehend it. This process takes place on a continuum, he says, that ranges from fluent to disfluent.

Fluent thoughts are ones that are easily processed by your brain. For example, Alter says that if you speak English and come across a common English name it is often less difficult to process than a non-English name you haven't seen many times. The difficult thoughts, on the other hand, fall on the disfluent end of the spectrum. His forthcoming book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, builds off of this research. For example, Alter says that you can take this basic idea and expand it to better understand how people make judgments, based on where their thoughts fall on the fluency scale. "People feel more positive about stuff that's easier to process," he adds. Generally speaking, if we feel more positive about something (or someone), our thought process is much different than if we do not.

In the book and in his talks, Alter shares intriguing insights on the way that cognitive responses to external influences shape the decisions we make. Widely applicable to many audiences, he explores the ways that understanding how we think about our thoughts—and how different environments influence those thoughts—can help us better interact with one another. Not only that, but he shows us how to apply these ideas at the upper tiers of management and leadership to ensure that our work environments are promoting positive interactions—and productive employees in the process.
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