The Dual-Process Theories and Development

Dual-process theories take to task theories depicting development as a predetermined sequence of increasingly differentiated states, whose progress is directed toward a pinnacle that serves as the standard against which prior developments are compared. My own research, and that of numerous other researchers, refutes this view with evidence that (a) even when age-related advances indicative of increasing complexity are found, those advances are not synchronized across domains and (b) developments often take rather counterintuitive forms: From more complex processing and performance toward less complex processing and performance. In brief, the dual-process theory that frames most of my research considers developments of three types.  The first type is evidenced by changes in an “analytic processing system,” the action of which is conscious, controlled, effortful, and deliberate.  As in more popular conceptions of development, progress depends on the acquisition of abilities that are frequently prescribed for normative reasoning and decision-making.  Again, however, these acquisitions do not emerge develop in a stage-like sequence.  Rather, as a function of biological maturation (e.g., maturation of the prefrontal cortex), formal and informal tuition, social engagement, and the developing individual’s own activities and motivations, different analytic competencies emerge at different points in development.

The second type of development is represented by changes in an “experiential” processing system. Experiential processing occurs at or below the periphery of consciousness; as a consequence, processing is rapid, relatively effortless, cognitively economical, guides physically economical (e.g., automatic) behaviors, and automatically activates memory-based heuristics and stereotypes.  Developments in this processing system have been largely ignored by developmental theorists, despite an increasingly powerful evidential corpus that this system plays a more pivotal role in children’s and adolescents’ decisions and behaviors that the analytic system.  Developments in the experiential system are geared toward increasing the efficiency of information processing and, consequently, involve the acquisition of cognitively and physically conservative strategies.   For instance, familial, cultural, and personal experiences guide children to acquire a diverse array of heuristic “short-cuts” and to abstract and store other memory-based strategies.  These strategies, particularly if they are used repeatedly, result in more automatic, faster, and more diverse judgments, decisions, and actions. Despite the short-term and personal adaptive value of developmental changes in the experiential system, the predominance of this system (over the analytic system) can create myriad personal (e.g., unrealistic optimism) and social (e.g., stereotypes, misperceptions of and conflict with different social groups) problems, at least in part because the experiential system because did evolve to afford adaptation in technologically advanced societies.

The third form of development has been the focus of most of my research.  These developments appear in the form of age-related changes in the products of interactions between the analytic and experiential processing systems.  I use the term “metacognitive intercession” to describe one of these products. Metacognitive intercession comprises abilities and dispositions that allow individuals to inhibit the use of stereotypes in impression formation and personal judgments, reduce the influence of prior beliefs on social reasoning, reflect on, evaluate, and determine the value of decision heuristics, and consider the consequences of relying various automatically-activated cognitions for the personal and interpersonal actions that those cognitions appear to prescribe.  This theoretical position, and evidence that supports its utility, are described more completely in Klaczynski (2004, 2005; also, Klaczynski & Cottrell, 2004).