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Under think all the (psychological) operations are summarized, which consists of an inner preoccupation with ideas , memories and concepts a knowledge try to mold. Usually only the end products of thought become conscious , but not the thought processes that produce them. However, introspective guesswork - thinking aloud - is very unreliable.

Thinking is generally differentiated from perception and intuition . This is usually justified by the fact that perception and intuition are non- conceptual , but thoughts are understood as conceptual or propositional . Thinking can be based on an idea, triggered spontaneously by feelings , situations , sensory impressions or people, or it can be developed in an abstract-constructive way. Automatic thinking, which is unconscious, unintentional, involuntary, and effortless, can be distinguished from controlled thinking, which is conscious, intentional, voluntary, and consuming. The vernacular is thinking both in the active form, "I think" and in a passive, perceptive: "I have a thought / one idea / an idea ." Daniel Kahneman also distinguishes a “System 1”, which works automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and without conscious control, from “System 2”, which assigns it to those strenuous mental activities that require attention. The activities of the second system are often associated with authorship, freedom of choice and concentration.

How thinking happens in detail is the subject of research in various disciplines. The sociology of knowledge , ethnology , psychology (especially thought psychology ) and cognitive science view thinking very differently. Some try to describe the present forms of thinking descriptively and to find certain patterns and heuristics that the thinking of individuals or groups follows in general, group-specifically or in individual cases. These forms can in turn be viewed from the perspective of sociology, general psychology , personality psychology or in cognitive science models. The brain research and related departments examine the psychological, neural and biochemical mechanisms that underlie the concrete process of thinking. Epistemology , game theory , logic and thought psychology investigate which rules thinking must follow in order to process perceptions in a meaningful way, to arrive at true convictions or to correctly solve problems or draw conclusions.

Auguste Rodin : The Thinker


In analogy to the terms of behavioral biology , one designates:

  • as a way of thinking (to behavior ) the individual train of thought
  • as thought patterns (on behavior patterns ) as a train of thought occurring regularly in response to a situation

The typical ways and patterns of thinking of a person depend on the disposition , socialization (including upbringing , education ), the experience gained in dealing with others and the type of social relationships .


Cognitive psychology

In cognitive psychology , thinking is viewed as a mixture of memory performance and logically abstract symbol processing.

With the help of models, so-called cognitive architectures, a. Thinking and problem-solving processes are simulated. The most famous models are

Thinking as problem solving

A problem arises when a desired target state cannot easily be reached from a given initial state. The obstacle between the actual and the target state must be removed by using aids (so-called operators). Thinking processes are required for this.

In this context, in contrast to intelligence tests, more complex tasks are used, such as B. the towers of Hanoi or computer- simulated problem - solving scenarios.

The main categories of thinking - conscious , unconscious or preconscious thinking - cannot be separated when solving problems. Every conscious thought process is preceded by unconscious thought steps. Many insights “mature” unconsciously, in a phase of relaxation , when one has distanced oneself from the problem. A number of great scientific insights apparently came to the researchers in their sleep or “out of the blue”.

Analytical thinking vs. analog thinking

In cognitive psychology there is a distinction between analytical thinking, which is based on an analysis of facts or the like. based, and analog thinking, which gets by without an analysis, play an important role. Analog thinking takes place associatively , spontaneously. In this way, complex facts can be opened up , for example through connotations . For example, it is possible to interpret a difficult literary text by associative painting of a picture without first having performed an interpretation on the basis of a text analysis.

Developmental psychology

Thinking often has to do with knowledge and experience . In Developmental Psychology , researchers investigate how children learn causal to recognize connections. This “knowledge of causality” often grows through objective experience and thinking.

Objective-causal thinking in a child is noticeable from around nine months; it is preceded by a phase of “pre-causality”. It seems to be similar with the associative thought processes mentioned above . At around three years of age, abstract causality also becomes apparent, but errors in logical thinking are often "resistant" (persist for a long time), which, however, also occurs in adults (cf. the research by Jean Piaget ).

When toddlers learn, e.g. B. to group individual elements or building blocks, the effects of logical operations become noticeable with increasing practice . At first they concentrate on one characteristic, later on a few characteristics. The logical multiplication - e.g. B. as a combined observation of shape and color - only succeeds after a few years, but is encouraged by chance experiences.

Various attempts - including with the mentally handicapped - contradict the frequently expressed assumption that children have alternative ways of thinking. How much of children's knowledge is “innate” and whether their conceptual structure corresponds to that of adults is currently being intensively investigated.

Motivational psychology

Thinking is also relevant to achievement motivation , e.g. B. in competitive sports . In this context, this is perhaps just as important as psychomotor skills and coaching or training . It is important to focus your thinking, imagining, current perception and even memory on the goal. Automation of all major reactions and sequences is required. In this way, the entire personal range of services is available even under pressure to perform.

Even ambition , selfishness , desire and working towards overall objectives can be examined from cognitive perspective.

Social psychology

Thinking is always influenced by the two most important human motives:

  • the need for a positive self-image and
  • the need for a realistic worldview.

As an actor in the social field , humans with their limited resources (limited attention , limited short-term memory , weaknesses in long-term memory , etc.) are constantly dependent on heuristics when thinking , e.g. B. automatic thinking, implicit knowledge , attitudes such as prejudice, sympathy, etc., schemes such as judgment heuristics , implicit personality theories , etc. Cognitive overload can lead to errors in reasoning and cognitive distortions .


The philosophy (ancient and modern Greek φιλοσοφία philosophía , literally "love of wisdom") has, in contrast to the individual sciences, no limited subject area. In general, it could be described as an attempt at the critical-rational self-examination of thinking, as a methodological reflection , the content of which tends to be directed towards an overall interpretation of the world and human existence. Thinking itself is discussed in particular in the epistemology of the philosophy of logic , the philosophy of language and in moral philosophy (in the theory of moral judgment).

Thinking as wordless language?

Thinking could also be described as speaking in silence in an inner language common to all human beings, which, after the philosopher Jerry Fodor, is called language of thought (for example: language of the mind ) or also mentalese (for example: "thought" or " mental ") . The idea of ​​a language of the mind (a lingua mentis ) can already be found - based on a thesis of the Greek philosopher Aristotle  - in the philosophy of the Middle Ages. A quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein expresses this as follows: "All philosophy is language criticism."

However, there is also a way of thinking in images that art knows and that is related to dreams and imaginations - the imagination (as in the legend that the chemist Friedrich August Kekulé dreamed the ring structure of the benzene molecule ).

Martin Heidegger , one of the main founders of phenomenology , describes thinking as a way. What is to be thought eludes people and pulls them along. Because what is to be thought eludes people and turns away from them, it claims them. The human being thus becomes a sign and points to that which eludes him.


Thinking can be culturally shaped; This assertion is supported by findings that assign different styles of thinking to different cultural areas. Thus, individualistic societies are assigned a more analytical way of thinking and, in contrast, collectivist cultures a more holistic way of thinking.

In analytical thinking, context is often ignored at the level of perception; when viewing an image, e.g. B. The main object is more focused than the background. This is called field independence. An analytically thinking person perceives objects more in terms of their properties and then classifies them into categories . Based on this categorization, assessments of future events and behavior are made. So an analytical thinker uses rules to predict behavior. In decision-making situations he clearly chooses “Pro” or “Contra” instead of the “golden mean”.

In holistic thinking , on the other hand, one directs one's attention to the relationship between the focused object and the context ( field dependence ). One tries to explain and predict events on this basis (rather than on the basis of rules). Holistic approaches are based more on experience and less on abstract logic. Holistic thinking can be intuitive . Also dialectical thinking is sometimes referred to as opposites worked out as a holistic, contradictions noticed and changes in the form of syntheses and compromises are being sought.

The ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described the traditional holistic ways of thinking of nature-adapted cultures as " wild thinking ".


Darwin already expressed the conviction that human thinking has equivalents in the animal world and that there are only gradual, but not fundamental, differences. Today it is undisputed that thinking has an evolutionary origin that can be explored by various disciplines. Tomasello's evolutionary way of thinking runs from the predominantly individual, competitive thinking of the great apes to the cooperative thinking of humans. In doing so, people think cooperatively by drafting common goals, pursuing them together and being able to rethink and correct them together. These skills mean evolutionary system transitions or innovations . In contrast to animals, human thinking evolved the ability to stable, cross-generational accumulation of thought content ( jack effect ) at the population level. With pronounced episodic thinking, based on the past - present - future, people can create complex thought scenarios and are strongly motivated to share information with others. These forms of thinking are not possible for animals.

The theory of the social brain points to a connection between the size of the brain and the maximum group size of socially living species. Social conditions with ever greater demands on intellectual performance in growing groups drive brain growth in the course of evolution and thus also the increasingly complex forms of thought in the history of the social life of humans and their ancestors, not the other way around.

Animals can think too. Terminology is not required for this. Birds are characterized by a different brain architecture from that of mammals. In particular, their forebrain with higher-value functions is convergent, i.e. independently evolved. Although they do not have a neocortex , with an alternative brain structure they have developed highly developed cognitive abilities that were previously not thought possible. This includes diverse tool use, causal and analog trains of thought, self-recognition and other skills. This is especially true for corvids , pigeons and parrots .

In invertebrates, bees are an evolutionarily highly developed end point. In their brain, bees have an equivalent to the cerebral cortex in the form of the mushroom body , which is large among insects . They have a detailed spatial odor map . They can learn and master new scents ( second-order learning ) and can also learn contextually. In addition, they are able to organize symbols and act categorically according to them. Ultimately, they have a “quasi-episodic memory” that enables them to make “what-when-where decisions”.

Octopuses have extraordinary thinking skills. Essential parts of the brain are convergent to the vertebrate brain, but show comparable properties that are essential for learning.

See also



Psychology and thinking technique

  • Frederic Vester : Thinking, Learning, Forgetting. 27th edition. dtv , 2000, ISBN 3-423-33045-7 .
  • Dietrich Dörner : Problem solving as information processing. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1976.
  • Joachim Funke : Problem-solving thinking. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-17-017425-8 .
  • J. Funke: Thinking & Problem Solving. (= Encyclopedia of Psychology. Volume C / II / 8). Hogrefe, Göttingen 2006, ISBN 3-8017-0527-7 .
  • G. Lüer, H. Spada: Thinking and Problem Solving. In: H. Spada (Ed.): Textbook General Psychology. Hans Huber, Bern 1990, pp. 189-280.
  • Bernhard von Mutius (ed.): The other intelligence. How we will think tomorrow. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-608-94085-5 .
  • R. Oerter: Psychology of Thought. Ludwig Auer, Donauwörth 1971.
  • MR Waldmann, M. von Sydow: Knowledge building, problem solving and thinking. In: Kurt Pawlik (Hrsg.): Handbuch Psychologie. Springer Verlag, Berlin 2006, ISBN 3-540-22178-6 , chap. 15th
  • Rolf Dobelli: The art of clear thinking. Carl Hanser Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-446-42682-5 .


Literature in English

  • Kwame Anthony Appiah : Thinking it Through - An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford et al. a. 2003, ISBN 0-19-516028-2 .
  • Daniel Kahneman : Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, ISBN 978-0-374-27563-1 .
  • Richard Nisbett , A. Norenzayan: Culture and cognition. In: H. Pashler, DL Medin (Ed.): Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology: Cognition. 3. Edition. Vol. 2, Wiley, S., New York 2002, pp. 561-579.
  • RE Nisbett, K. Peng, I. Choi, A. Norenzayan: Culture and systems of thought: holistic versus analytic cognition. In: Psychological Review. 108, 2001, pp. 291-310.
  • Richard W. Paul, Linda Elder: Critical Thinking. 2002, ISBN 0-13-064760-8 .
  • Steven Pinker : How the mind works. ISBN 0-14-024491-3 .
  • Steven Pinker: The language instinct. ISBN 0-14-017529-6 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Thinking  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: think  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Georgi Schischkoff : Philosophical Dictionary .
  2. a b M. W. Eysenck, MT Keane: Cognitive Psychology. 4th edition. Psychology Press, Hove (UK) 2000, ISBN 0-86377-551-9 , p. 394.
  3. ^ A b Elliot Aronson , TD Wilson, RM Akert: Social Psychology. 4th edition. Pearson Studium, 2004, ISBN 3-8273-7084-1 , p. 57 ff.
  4. ^ Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, fast and slow. Allen Lane Paperback, ISBN 978-1-84614-606-0 , pp. 20 f.
  5. ^ Elliot Aronson, TD Wilson, RM Akert: Social Psychology. 4th edition. Pearson study. 4th edition. 2004, ISBN 3-8273-7084-1 , p. 16 ff.
  6. Martin Heidegger: What does thinking mean? 1st edition. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1954. (also Reclam (UB 8805), Ditzingen 1992, ISBN 3-15-008805-4 )
  7. ^ Claude Lévi-Strauss: The wild thinking. Translation by Hans Naumann. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1968.
  8. Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2009, ISBN 978-3-596-90145-6 . (After the German translation by Heinrich Schmidt 1908)
  9. Achim Stephan, Sven Walter (Ed.): Handbuch Kognitionswissenschaft. JM Metzler 2013. Chap. E.6. Evolutionary Psychology, pp. 119-124.
  10. Michael Tomasello: A natural history of human thought. Suhrkamp 2014, ISBN 978-3-518-58615-0 , p. 186 (Original: A Natural History of Human Thinking )
  11. Thomas Suddendorf: The difference. What makes a person into a person. Berlin Verlag, 2014 (Original: The Gap. The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals . Basic Books, New York 2013)
  12. Clive Gamble, John Gowlett, Robin Dunbar: Evolution, Thinking, Culture. The social brain and the genesis of man. Springer Spectrum, 2016, ISBN 978-3-662-46767-1 . doi: 10.1007 / 978-3-662-46768-8 . (Original: Thinking Big. How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind . Thames & Hudson, London 2015)
  13. Onur Güntürkün . The convergent evolution of neural substrates for cognition. In: Psychol. Res. 76, 2012, pp. 212-219. (PDF)
  14. Randolf Menzel , Matthias Eckoldt: The intelligence of bees. How they think, plan, feel and what we can learn from them. Knaus 2016,
  15. Jennifer A. Mather: To boldly go where no mollusc has gone before: Personality, play, thinking, and consciousness in cephalopods. In: American Malacological Bulletin. 24 (1), 2008, pp. 51-58. doi: 10.4003 / 0740-2783-24.1.51
  16. Binyamin Hochner, Tal Shomrat, Graziano Fiorito: The Octopus: A Model for a Comparative Analysis of the Evolution of Learning and Memory Mechanisms. In: Biol. Bull. Vol. 210 no. 3, June 2006, pp. 308-317.