Field-dependent/Field-independent

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Cognitive control regulating information processing

Field-dependent and Field-independent

There is a considerable body of knowledge that has been accumulated on cognitive style through empirical research (Chinien, 1990), and various cognitive style dimensions have been identified. One of the cognitive style dimensions which has received more widespread attention and which has been more extensively researched is the construct field-dependent/independent (Learning & Skills Research Centre, 2004), (Wallace & Gregory, 1985), (Witkin, et al., 1977), (Witkin & Goodenough, 1981), (Ragan et al., 1979). Field-dependent/independent (FD/FI) is a psychological construct related to a “global versus an analytical way of perceiving, [and] entails the ability to perceive items without being influenced by the background” (Kirby, 1979, p. 52). There is considerable empirical evidence regarding stable and profound differences between the field-dependent and field-independent construct (Witkin et al., 1977).

Herman Witkin is credited for the identification of the field-dependent and field-independent constructs. During World War II, Witkin was intrigued by the fact that when some fighter pilots were flying long distances in thick clouds or fog, they could maintain their orientation and reference to the horizontal. Others however became disoriented when they lost sight of the horizon. Witkin conducted a series of laboratory experiments to study this phenomenon. His early approach to test his subjects was to place them in a dark room, seated on a chair. Both room and chair could be tilted. During the experiment, subjects were asked to locate their body position to the true vertical, while the chair or the room or both were tilted. The subjects who were able to maintain their orientation were designated as “field-independent”. Those subjects who were unable to do so were called “field-dependent” (Witkin & Goodenough, 1981).

Witkin’s laboratory test was simplified over time to a paper and pencil instrument, called the Embedded Figures Test (EFT). Subjects using the EFT are asked to identify simple figures embedded in a series of complex designs. The Fl individuals are more successful in disembedding the figures from these designs. The FD persons, on the other hand, are less successful in performing that task. Research has shown that the EFT is a valid and reliable instrument for measuring the cognitive style dimension FD/FI (Witkin et al., 1971). The EFT is administered on an individual basis. Therefore it is not a practical instrument for testing large groups of subjects. Another version of the same test, the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT) was developed for group testing. The GEFT contains almost the same items of the EFT, and has a reliability estimate of .82 for both males and females. The concurrent validity of the test (r = .82 for males and r = .63 for females) was estimated by correlating subjects’ scores on the GEFT and EFT (Witkin et al., 1971).

Research has shown that field-dependent individuals are drawn to people and like to have people around them. They exhibit more non-verbal behaviors, prefer occupations which require involvement with others (e.g., social sciences); they also demonstrate a preference for academic areas that are people-oriented (e. g., teaching, selling). On the other hand, the relatively field-independent people demonstrate a preference for impersonal and abstract school subjects (e. g., mathematics and physical sciences); they are more impersonal, and prefer occupations in which interaction with others is not important (e.g., astronomy, engineering) (Witkin & Moore, 1974). Relatively field-dependent persons have a global perception, take a long time for solving problems (Witkin & Moore, 1974). They tend to use “external referents for self-definition, and are therefore externally motivated; make less use of mediators in the coding process of knowledge acquisition; and prefer a spectator approach to concept attainment” (Caliste, 1985, p. 26). Furthermore, the field-dependent individuals are extremely alert to social cues, have highly developed interpersonal skills, and like to study and work in groups. In addition they are extremely sensitive to social criticism and are strongly influenced by others around them (Witkin & Moore, 1974, Witkin & Goodenough, 1981). In contrast, the relatively field-independent persons are analytical, tend to solve problems rapidly, and learn better when content is abstract (Witkin & Moore, 1974). They are also “less attentive to social cues and more abstract- analytical in orientation, use external referents for self-definition and therefore are more intrinsically motivated, make frequent use of mediators and engage in a hypothesis-testing approach to concept attainment rather than spectator analysis” (Caliste, 1985, p. 26). The field-independent individuals tend to be “aloof, theoretical and not sensitive to others around them. They prefer to work alone. They avoid group interaction if given a choice. They are almost oblivious to social criticism. In contrast to the field-dependents, field-independents will restructure any random or non-hierarchically presented information for better retention and retrieval” (Wallace & Gregory, 1985, p. 22). According to Witkin and Moore (1974) the FD/FI individuals are not different “in sheer learning ability or memory” (p. 6).

Earlier studies (Witkin, Lewis, Hertzman, Machover, Meissner, & Wapner, 1954) indicated that the cognitive style dimension FD/FI was related to gender differences. Males appeared to be more field-independent that females. However, evidence from more recent studies indicates that gender differences in field-dependence is inconclusive (Naditch, 1976).

The cognitive style dimension field-dependent/independent has also some important educational implications, which can affect what one learns and how one learns (Witkin et al., 1977; Ragan et al., 1979). This cognitive style construct is also a source of considerable individual differences among individuals. These differences reflect the psychological and personality factors, perceptual patterns and social orientation (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978), all of which affect people’s ability to learn. 

Although cognitive style is considered to be a determinant factor for individual and organizational performance by some industrial and organizational psychologists, it has received little attention in the literature in the past. However, there is currently sustained interest for research investigating cognitive style in business and management (Armstrong, Cools, & Sadler-Smith, 2012). Streufert and Nogami (1989) have argued that there must be another dimension, independent of related task-specific knowledge and skills, that explains successes and failures to perform in novel situations and in task after task, and job after job (Streufert & Nogami, 1989) in (Hayes, 1998). They describe this dimension in the following terms: “these variables must reflect stable cognitive and action tendencies that are applied across tasks. Rather than attitudes, specific knowledge or practical skills, which a person might apply to some given job, these “personality” variables must reflect a characteristic style, which an individual might employ across tasks and settings. These are variables, which control how a person in general perceives, processes, and organizes information and how that person would act” (Streufert & Nogami, 1989, p. 94) in (Hayes, 1998).

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