Field Dependence Revisited:

An empirical and theoretical evaluation of issues for Education and Psychology


Julie A. Richardson

The Learning Development Centre

Staffordshire University


Arguably the strongest programme of cognitive styles research, was carried-out by Herman Witkin and his colleagues which identified and developed a theory of field dependence (e.g. Witkin & Asch, 1948; Witkin & Goodenough, 1981). This theory refers to the extent to which a person is dependent versus independent of the organisation of the surrounding perceptual field. A principal measure of field dependence is the Embedded Figures Test, where individuals must locate a previously seen figure within a larger, complex figure. Wide reaching empirical claims have been made for field dependence. A resulting typology was heralded for its simplicity of measurement, and became the focus of more researches than any other cognitive style. This popularity however, was a two-edged sword. A neglect of some central problems led to its rapid decline in the 1980s.

This paper reports a large study which first examined the main causes of the theory's decline and then used them as a foundation for an empirical investigation. For example a key problem for the theory has been its inability to display discriminant validity with conventional intelligence tests. Field-independence has frequently been associated with higher spatial and overall intelligence. This, with too much reliance on gaining correlates with other tests, rather than theories, has left the theory badly structured, and confused relationships with a range of topics of key interest for education and psychology. This study tackles this problem by evaluating the relationship that field dependence has with these topics by using not only the EFT as a measure of field dependence, but also the Cognitive Styles Analysis which may be a more value-free measure. In addition, it thoroughly tackles the whole issue of intelligence with respect to the theory and compares its relationships to two different conceptions of intelligence. The topics presented are,

[i] psychometric intelligence; [ii] the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence; [iii] Achievement motivation; [iv] Jung's personality types; [v] School performance.

The key questions, which the paper focuses on, are;

What do the associations between field dependence, and the five topics look like, when the EFT measures it?

Do they look different when the CSA is used?

Is the Cognitive Styles Analysis able to tell us more about the characteristics of learners at both ends of the field dependence continuum?

Finally, the theoretical and methodological implications are highlighted with suggestions for future research and application.

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