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The Dark Side of Positive Psychology Part 4: Thinking Strengths

4 July 2014

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    The Dark Side of Positive Psychology Part 4: Thinking Strengths
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Welcome to part 4 of our series: The Dark Side of Positive Psychology – Thinking Strengths in Overdrive.

  • In part 1 we said that some Strengths-based approaches may be wrong and we looked at a more balanced approach.
  • In part 2 we continued the theme but looked more specifically at emotional strengths.
  • In part 3 we dealt with relational strengths in overdrive and how they can harm interpersonal relationships.

This week we focus on thinking strengths and what they might look like when in overdrive… The term ‘thinking’ has numerous definitions in the psychology literature. However, one thread that weaves its way throughout the thinking and cognition literature is the concept of mental schemata which is considered central to the process of thinking.

Schemata: the basic building blocks of thought

Mental schemata are frameworks or blueprints that people use to understand and make sense of the world (Kant, 2000; Piaget, 1971). For example, when a person thinks of the word ‘dog’ numerous elements are conjured up in the mind. Some of these elements may be a mental image of a dog of a specific breed such as a Scottish Terrier, Chihuahua or Great Dane. Also, there are other ‘units of meaning’ that are linked to this idea of ‘dog’ such as for example: allergies, fun, responsibility, feeding, walking, love and discipline. These associations may be different from person to person, but nonetheless there is a mental structure that is accessed when we think of ‘dog’. These associations are most often taken from experiences with dogs in the real world as these inform us of what ‘dog’ is and with what ‘dog’ is associated with. Schemata are not limited only to association, but also allow for mental simulation and the development of mental models (Byrne, 2005). If you think about ‘dog’ you have ideas about the way a dog behaves. You may also have a mental model of how you would act around a dog such as taking it for a walk or petting it. In your mental simulation the dog may also be wagging its tail, pant with its tongue out, and bark.  By thinking you are simulating a dog’s behaviour in your mind, without ever really seeing the dog. Schemata therefore form part of a basic network of mental blueprints that allow us to simulate objects, situations and occurrences without really experiencing them (Byrne, 2005). This does not mean however, that schemata are not based in experience and reality.

Our mental frameworks must be congruent with reality

Piaget (1971) explained that schemata which form the basic building blocks of thought can change and develop as we experience things in the world around us. Good thinking, according to Piaget (1985), is to have schemata that are congruent with reality. For example, if someone had a schema for ‘dog’ that included the idea that dogs could fly, this schema would not be very functional because it is simply not congruent with reality. Therefore, for us to truly think in an optimal manner, we need to go through a process of equilibration. Schizophrenia, a psychological disorder characterized by illogical and haphazard thinking, is an example of distorted and unrealistic schemata where equilibration does not occur (Weckowicz, 1960). Equilibration is a process by which our mental models are tested by observing reality. If your mental model does not match reality, the mental model is calibrated and altered so that a more balanced and realistic mental model is adopted (Moessinger, 1978). Schizophrenics may believe a number of things based on faulty and confused schemata that are not only out of touch with reality, but can also be potentially dangerous. For example, a schizophrenic individual may believe that they could fly, or that they are invincible. Because they are unable to integrate new information from the environment, such as not being able to fly, their mental model remains ‘out-of-date’. It is therefore important that schemata are linked to real-world information otherwise our thinking and consequently our decision-making will not be functional. Kahneman (2011) argues that good decisions result from a congruent and detailed understanding of empirical information in the world around us and the ability to infer and deduce outcomes that are closely related to this empirical information. Often, poor thinking and decision-making results from logical leaps, where people stray too far from reality (Kahneman, 2011). But what about creativity and vision, do these not transcend the objective and real?

Creativity: Thinking beyond our mental frameworks

As mentioned earlier, schemata are not always purely empirical (based on observation from the world around us). Think about the concept of ‘love’. There certainly are real events linked to this concept, but a large proportion of the idea of love is intangible and not empirically visible. Newell, Shaw, and Simon (1958) proposed a radical departure from empirical thinking their symposium entitled The Process of Creative Thinking. These authors argued that creativity is the ability to conceive of situations beyond the information available from the real world through direct experience. They also argue that problem solving is synonymous with creative thinking, because the solution is almost never tangible or obvious. Therefore, good thinking goes beyond what is realistic into a world of vision, creativity and innovation (Kirton, 2004).

StrengthScope Thinking Strengths are about “good” schemata and good “deduction”

Good thinking is therefore a balance between good schemata (a realistic and grounded understanding of the world around us) and good deduction (the ability to conceive of occurrences and situations beyond the empirical world).  It is no coincidence then that the StrengthScope bases its Thinking Strengths on the capacity to generate logical and realistic schemata and the capacity to use these schemata to make ‘grounded’ inferences. The StrengthScope has five core Thinking Strengths where the first three strengths relate to ‘good schemata’ and the last two with ‘good deduction:

  1. Common Sense: The capacity to make pragmatic judgments based on practical experience.
  2. Critical Thinking: The ability to break down problems into their basic components and evaluate them objectively.
  3. Detail Orientation: Paying close attention to detail in order to produce high quality decisions, outputs, and solutions.
  4. Creativity: Generating new ideas and original solutions.
  5. Strategic Mindedness: The ability to focus on the future and simulate (forecast) long-term outcomes.

There does appear to be a fine line between having good schemata based in reality and making good deductions. Once again, Aristotle’s Golden Mean helps us to understand that too much ‘reality’ and too little ‘imagination’ or too little ‘reality’ and too much ‘imagination’ can negate good thinking. Consequently, the StrengthScope gives the following descriptions for Thinking Strengths in overdrive:

  1. Common Sense in overdrive: The tendency to dismiss new ideas and solutions which are not highly practical.
  2. Critical Thinking in overdrive: The tendency to focus on flaws of proposed solutions and be over-critical when evaluating new ideas.
  3. Detail Orientation in overdrive: Spending too much time on the details and losing sight of the ‘bigger picture’ or overall goals and plans.
  4. Creativity in overdrive: A tendency to generate eccentric and unworkable ideas that take little of the realities of the situation into account.
  5. Strategic Mindedness in overdrive: being so focused on the future that current realities are not taken into account when making decisions or solving problems.

It therefore appears that too much Common Sense, Critical Thinking, and Detail Orientation can result in being overly critical, cynical, short-sighted and unimaginative. On the other hand, too much Creativity and Strategic Mindedness can result in being eccentric, impractical, unrealistic, and aberrant.

Where to from here?

In the next instalment Paul Vorster will be dealing with Execution Strengths which are important for getting things done and making good decisions.


Byrne, R.M.J. (2005). The Rational Imagination: How People Create Counterfactual Alternatives to Reality. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kirton, M. J. (2004). Adaption-innovation in the context of diversity and change. Sussex, England: Routledge. Moessinger, P. (1978). Piaget on equilibration. Human Development, 21, 255-267. doi: 10.1159/000271589 Newell, A., Shaw, J. C., & Simon, H. A. (1958). The process of creative thinking. Presented at the Symposium of Creative Thinking, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, May 14, 1958. Piaget, J. (1985). Equilibration of cognitive structures. University of Chicago Press. Piaget, J. 1971. Biology and Knowledge. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press. Weckowicz, T. E. (1960). Perception of hidden pictures by schizophrenic patients. AMA Archive of General Psychiatry, 2, 521-527. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.1960.03590110045005. Photo Credit: Le*Gluon via Compfight cc

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