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Cognitive Resources Theory: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college information technology and literacy, and has a master's in counseling psychology and business administration.

The Cognitive Resource Theory focuses on intelligence, experience, and how they influence your reactions in stressful situations. Learn about the assumptions of Cognitive Resource Theory, the relationship between intelligence and experience, and more.

An Introduction to Cognitive Resource Theory

Think about how you respond to stressful situations. In your attempt to alleviate the unpleasant feelings related to stress, you might respond quickly without seeking out the most logical answer. According to the Cognitive Resource Theory, your experience and your intelligence have the tendency to interfere with each other during stressful situations.

The Cognitive Resource Theory was developed by Fred Fiedler and Joe Garcia in 1987. This theory focuses on intelligence, experience, and how they influence how you react to stress. Certain cognitive factors, such as intelligence and experience, can affect leadership ability. The leaders who perform the best are those that use their cognitive abilities to determine the most efficient way to lead their groups.

Whether or not you should rely on your intelligence or your experience depends on the level of stress that you experience in the situation. In low-stress situations, you should rely on intelligence; however, you should rely on experience in high-stress situations.

The Cognitive Resource Theory has five assumptions:

In low-stress situations, leaders who use their intelligence get the best result.

Intelligence is the main factor in situations where the leader is under low stress. The leader uses intelligence to tell people what needs to be done, instead of hoping that the others will agree with their decisions. Leaders who are more experienced are not challenged in low stress situations. They also get bored and have a tendency to cut corners.

In high-stress situations, leaders who are more experienced produce more quality results.

Situations that do not have rational solutions can be very stressful. In high stress situations, rational solutions are not always available. Without rational solutions, intelligence does little good and can actually make the situation worse. For example, leaders that rely on intelligence could spend their time closed up in their office overanalyzing the problem and ignoring their group members. In such situations, having previous experience of the same or similar circumstances allows the leader to react based off what they learned from their previous experiences without overanalyzing the situation. It follows that the more experience the leader has, the better the leader performs.

Leaders who are directive have better performance when they use their intelligence in settings that are supportive and low in stress.

Think about what would happen if the person who was giving out orders and making decisions wasn't very intelligent and gave out directions that did not make much sense. The group would probably follow these instructions, which would lead to negative consequences. Therefore, intelligence is very important in these types of situations. For situations where the leader is being directive, i.e., giving out orders and exercising control over the situation, performance depends on the intelligence of the leader, whether there is low stress, and if the group members support the leaders.

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