What is Steering Cognition?

Steering Cognition is a model of a cognitive function which contributes to how we regulate our attention and coordinate our corresponding responses.

Steering Cognition describes how the brain biases attention toward specific stimuli whilst ignoring others, before coordinating responsive actions which cohere with our past patterns of self-representation. Steering Cognition enables us to use our limited cognitive resources to make sense of the world that we expect to see.

The analogy of the car is sometimes used to explain Steering Cognition. As the ‘controls of our mind’, Steering Cognition regulates the mind’s direction, brakes and gears. Studies have shown that it is distinct from the ‘engine’ of our mind, sometimes referred to as ‘algorithmic processing’, which is responsible for how we process complex calculations.

Regulating our Steering Cognition involves conscious effort; much like driving off-road, we particularly need to regulate our Steering Cognition when we are facing unpredictable and varied situations and stimuli. Failing to do so can result in cognitive, affective (emotional) and social biases.

The state of our Steering Cognition at any time is influenced by what are called ‘priming’ effects (cues in the surrounding environment such as sights, sounds and messages of which we may not be conscious). Studies have shown that environmental biasing of our Steering Cognition can contribute to non-conscious in-group behaviours, e.g. an increased likelihood of group-think or emotional contagion.

Studies have shown that, during adolescence, individuals develop more fixed patterns of steering. By adulthood, these patterns become recognisable as mental traits, behaviours and social attributes. There is some evidence that people with more flexible Steering Cognition have advantages in jobs which require greater social or cognitive dexterity.

Steering Cognition has been shown to depend on our ability to mental simulate or imagine ourselves performing tasks and functions. As such, Steering Cognition requires the capacity to self-represent, associating memories of our past and possible future selves. Steering Cognition has been shown to implicate our affective (emotional), social and abstract cognitions.

The term ‘Steering Cognition’ was coined by the researcher Simon P. Walker who discovered consistent, replicable patterns of attention and corresponding response through repeated cognitive tests between 2000 and 2015, in studies with over 15,000 individuals.

Working with his colleague Jo Walker, he was able to show that these patterns correlated with other cognitive attributes such as mental wellbeing, social competency and academic performance. Together, Walker and Walker conjecture that Steering Cognition is a central mechanism by which people self-regulate their cognitive, emotional and social states.