Students have “hot” and “cold” systems for thinking.

Hot thinking is intuitive, automatic, and reactive. Cold thinking helps them learn to analyze, reflect, and integrate complex ideas. One of the frustrations adults often have about the teenage years is that young people seem to have poor judgment—even when they have developed strong cold thinking skills like reasoning and reflection.

What’s going on? Researchers are finding that adolescents, more than adults, are developmentally

  • Motivated to seek out novel and exciting experiences;
  • More apt to learn from positive than negative consequences; and
  • More likely to take risks when in the presence of peers (since hot thinking is affected heavily by social influence).

Furthermore, current neuroscience suggests that the cold system does not fully mature until the early twenties, leaving young people to rely on the hot thinking system to help them with many decisions. This dynamic shifts as young people get better at coordinating hot thinking and cold thinking through executive function.

How to Help Young People Improve Decision Making Skills

If both hot and cold thinking are critical parts of decision making, what can be done to enhance the processes? These kinds of strategies are showing promise in research:

  • Have young people develop scripts or roadmaps for how to think through a challenge that can be applied to situations. With this approach, young people think through an overall strategy when they can be more analytic. Then they can apply it more quickly when they need to.
  • Emphasize intuitive thinking (which is different from impulsive thinking), which focuses on the core meaning or value that the young person holds. They focus on the gist of the decision at hand, rather than analyzing every rational choice involved (which is often impossible in the pressure of the moment).
  • Give young people opportunities to practice applying these scripts or roadmaps across different topics and scenarios. Repeat this many times, so that young people internalize how they can apply it to all of the different decisions and situations they face.

Are you interested in learning more about how students can develop decision-making skills? Join us this fall for our next REACH Workshop, which engages participants in understanding and practicing strategies for helping young people build character strengths that are essential for motivating them to achieve goals and complete tasks in school and beyond.