Field Dependence and Field Independence

Another area where individuals show differences in their abilities to discriminate events or visual, auditory, or tactile cues from their surrounding environments is known as field-dependence/field-independence. Herman Witkin conducted much of the original research in this area in the 1950s. A field-dependent person has difficulty finding a geometric shape that is embedded or ''hidden'' in a background with similar (but not identical) lines and shapes. The conflicting patterns distract the person from identifying the given figure. A person who is field-independent can readily identify the geometric shape, regardless of the background in which it is set. This manner of interpretation, however, is not limited to visual cues. Many researchers are studying auditory and other sensory perception abilities that may vary from person to person.

There is also a strong connection between this cognitive style and social interactions. People who are field-dependent are frequently described as being very interpersonal and having a well-developed ability to read social cues and to openly convey their own feelings. Others describe them as being very warm, friendly, and personable. Interestingly, Witkin and Donald Goodenough, in their 1981 book Cognitive Styles, explained that this may be due to a lack of separation between the self and the environment (or ''field'') on some level. Field-dependent people notice a lack of structure in the environment (if it exists) and are more affected by it than other people.

By contrast, individuals who are field-independent use an ''internal'' frame of reference and can easily impose their own sense of order in a situation that is lacking structure. They are also observed to function autonomously in social settings. They are sometimes described as impersonal and task-oriented. These people, however, do have the ability to discern their own identity of self from the field. In addition, a strong correlation has been discovered between gender and field orientation. Women are more likely to be field-dependent, whereas men are frequently field-independent. Career tasks and job descriptions are also closely aligned with field-dependence/field-independence.

Specifically of concern to educators is the discovery that field-dependent children do not do as well in large group settings or class activities where the lessons are not highly structured. There are also indications that these same individuals do not perform as well on open-ended questions as compared to students who are field-independent.

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