Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Cognitive Complexity among Practicing Counselors: How Thinking Changes with Experience

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Cognitive Complexity among Practicing Counselors: How Thinking Changes with Experience

Article excerpt

Cognitive complexity, broadly defined, is the ability to absorb, integrate, and make use of multiple perspectives. Individuals using cognitively complex perspectives ask questions, admit uncertainty, examine their own beliefs, tolerate ambiguity, listen carefully, suspend judgments, look for evidence, and adjust opinions when new information becomes available (Elder & Paul, 1994). Within the field of counseling, higher levels of cognitive complexity have been linked to more flexibility in counseling methods, more empathetic communication (Benack, 1988), less prejudice, more multicultural appropriateness, more sophisticated descriptions of clients, more confidence, less anxiety, a greater tolerance for ambiguity (Jennings & Skovholt, 1999), and more focus on the counseling process with less self-focus (Birk & Mahalik, 1996).

Beginning in the 1990s, researchers in the field of counselor education began to study cognitive development of counselors-in-training. These studies have had three major foci: to map cognitive complexity within the graduate curriculum (e.g., Fong, Borders, Ethington, & Pitts, 1997; Granello, 2002; Lyons & Hazler, 2002), to develop methods to enhance cognitive complexity (Choate & Granello, 2006; Duys & Hedstrom, 2000; Fong et al., 1997; Granello & Underfer-Babalis, 2004; Lovell, 2002), and to link cognitive complexity to enhanced counseling outcomes (e.g., Birk & Mahalik, 1996; Borders, 1989) or skill acquisition (Eriksen & McAuliffe, 2006; McAuliffe & Lovell, 2006). Within graduate training, there is emerging evidence that counselors-in-training become more cognitively complex over the course of their graduate programs (Granello, 2002). Attempts to map this change in complexity have primarily relied on Perry's (1970) model of cognitive development (Duys & Hedstrom, 2000; Granello, 2002; McAuliffe & Lovell, 2006). To date, however, almost all research has focused on students within graduate training. Very little is known from a research perspective about the development of cognitive complexity over the professional life span of practicing counselors.

Perry's Model

William Perry, a psychologist at Harvard University, conducted a series of interviews with more than 500 Harvard undergraduates during a 20-year period (Perry, 1970). Perry (1970) concluded that as students proceed through their university experience, their assumptions about the nature of knowledge, the legitimate role of the instructor, and their responsibilities as learners change. Perry (1970) believed that the epistemological assumptions made by the students not only revealed their perceptions about the world of knowledge but also provided insight into the reasoning that they used to organize and evaluate these perceptions. He grouped these perceptions and the reasoning behind them into categories, or cognitive structures. Development in Perry's (1970) model is characterized by a progression through these distinctly different structures. He delineated a series of nine development positions along a continuum. These nine positions can be condensed to four major categories: dualistic, multiplistic, relativistic, and committed relativistic thinking.

The first category, dualistic thinking, is characterized by a dichotomous structure in which the world is viewed in absolute either-or terms. Thus, information falls into two categories: fight or wrong. Dualistic counselors maintain a conventional, unquestioning belief that there are single truths that are known by authorities (McAuliffe & Lovell, 2006). In the second category, multiplistic thinking, the dualistic structure is discarded and replaced by uncertainty. All knowledge seems equally valid, and the search for right answers is abandoned. Multiplistic counselors may find themselves overwhelmed by choices and unable to make decisions on the basis of relevant data. The third category is relativistic thinking. …

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