On the Varieties of Styles of Thinking, Part 1: Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Thinking

Autism can be understood as a style of thinking.

Styles of thinking occur along a continuum. At the center of the two extremes are top-down and bottom-up thinking. In fact, these are not the most extreme forms of thinking, but we must first establish the norm of each before we can understand the extremes of each.

Top-down thinkers tend to see the big picture first. They start with the answer. The end goal is identified, and then ways to get there are investigated. To flip the old cliché, you see the forest, but not the trees. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a top-down thinker will get a handful of data before developing the ideas, theory, hypothesis, then proceed to try to find ways to prove that theory, as proving the theory is the end goal. Of course, data may not prove the theory, in which case one then posits a different theory. The more top-down a thinker is, the less data is needed to develop an idea, etc., or to prove (or, indeed, disprove) a theory to them, which makes the process faster; however, this means they are more likely they are to engage in confirmation bias. Such thinkers are strategic thinkers.

Bottom-up thinkers tend to see the parts first. There is no clear end goal identified; the process itself is sufficient, and the end will be reached when you get there. These are the people who sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees. Or, specifically, they need to have a sufficient number of trees in order to agree that what we have here is in fact a forest. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a bottom-up thinker will collect copious amounts of data, work out the patterns within the data set, then develop the idea, etc. from the identified patterns. The more bottom-up a thinker is, the more data is needed before they are comfortable developing an idea, etc., but as a result they are very likely to be quite confident in their idea, etc. However, sufficient contradictory data will in fact change their minds, especially after they figure out how to fit the new data in with the old data. Such thinkers are analytical thinkers.

Now please note that these are general patterns. The fact that one is generally a bottom-up thinker does not mean they cannot engage (or learn to engage) in top-down thinking. Or vice versa. However, the more extreme one’s natural thinking process is, the less likely one is going to learn (or learn well) how to engage in the other kind of thinking.

Also, one may note that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches. If you need to strategize, you need to engage in top-down thinking. If you need to come up with a solution quickly, you need to engage in top-down thinking. However, if you need to do a careful analysis, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking. If you want to understand patterns, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking.

I will also note that both styles of thinking also match the two general patterns of network architecture: top-down, hierarchical networks and bottom-up, scale-free networks. Top-down networks require step-by-step organization. You start at the top and you add things over time to create the network. The most efficient way is to create a hierarchy. Our organizations, including our firms, are so structured. However, bottom-up networks self-organize as the parts interact with each other. Things aren’t added; rather, patterns emerge from the interactions of the parts already there. As a result, you get a scale-free architecture following power law distributions of links.

I would further argue that those who primarily engage in top-down thinking are going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, top-down hierarchical networks, or organizations. Those who primarily engage in bottom-up thinking are, thus, going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, bottom-up hierarchical networks, or spontaneous orders. As a result, one would predict that the more top-down a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view — you will be more likely to support policies that will create more hierarchical organizations and which will organize the world from the top-down. Equally, one would predict that the more bottom-up a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view — you will be more likely to support policies that will create decentralized networks and reduce hierarchy.

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