Hot and Cold Cognition

Cognition is a term that gets used a lot in psychological research, but what does it really mean? Usually, when we talk about cognition, we think about thinking. How do we understand the world around us? How does memory work? How quickly can we process information? It’s a very broad topic encompassing many different aspects of human experience, which makes it a veritable cornucopia of information about the human condition, but also a difficult thing to truly pin down. In this post, I’d like to hopefully provide some clarity as to the use of two particular categories that have become a popular distinction within the field of cognitive psychology as of late: hot and cold.

The overarching concept of human cognition has been a phenomenon of much interest for decades. Psychological researchers have spent years trying to understand how we think about ourselves, others, and the world in many different contexts. There’s countless research on the developmental trajectory of cognition, cognition in aging adults, and differences in cognitive abilities across a wide variety of mental disorders. Developmentally, we know a lot about how, for instance, babies come to understand object permanence, toddlers develop theory of mind, and children gain the ability to remember personal historical events. In aging, there has been much research on what the normal trajectory of cognitive ability looks like in an effort to better detect when something else like dementia is at play. And cognition has long been known to be an area of deficits in people with depression, psychosis, and various other mental disorders. All things considered, we know a ton about what it looks like to know things and when our ability to know things goes a bit on the fritz. We have countless methods for assessing cognition, from computerized tests of verbal memory to self-report questionnaires about risky decision-making. That said, there is much that we still don’t know about cognition.

With such a wide variety of phenomena falling under the umbrella term of “cognition,” splitting it into distinct categories makes a lot of sense. One such way that researchers often distinguish different kinds of cognition is with the labels “hot” and “cold.” Cold cognition is typically thought of as the more classic category of cognition, existing in the domain of logic and reason without the input of the individual’s emotional or social context. Common examples of cold cognition are working memory and verbal learning. These are tasks that have been historically thought to develop in childhood, and performance is considered to be a fairly stable representation of a person’s general cognitive abilities. For instance, schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by (among other things) cognitive deficits, and there is a large body of research on how cold cognition is affected, including well-documented deficits in working memory and processing speed (Dickinson et al., 2004).

On the other hand, hot cognition refers to cognition that involves social or emotional aspects. Common examples of hot cognition are reward learning and risk-taking. These are cognitive tasks that rely not only on an individual’s ability to reason about the world around them, but also on their emotional state and the social context in which they are completing the task. There has also been research on the effects of hot cognition in youth at high risk for psychosis, specifically linking deficits in hot cognition to an elevated risk for youth to convert to psychosis (Mackenzie et al., 2017).

If you’ve ever done any pen and paper or computerized cognitive tasks yourself, whether for research, diagnostic purposes, or just for fun, you may have noticed that emotion and social context absolutely played a role in how well you did. Maybe you were feeling sad and felt like your processing speed was slower than normal, or maybe someone was watching over your shoulder and you felt pressured to perform really well. It’s not a reasonable assumption that anyone completing any kind of task does not have some kind of emotional context that they’re bringing to the table. So why separate the two at all?

While the differentiation between hot and cold cognition isn’t as old as the idea of cognition itself, there has been a large amount of research published on the differences between these two categories. Research by Nord and Halahakoon (2018) has shown brain differences in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) activity during cold cognition tasks for those affected and unaffected by depression, but no differences during hot cognition. Nejati and colleagues (2018) have found that cold cognition relies primarily on the central-executive network (specifically dlPFC), whereas hot cognition additionally relies on the default mode network, highlighting the importance of slightly different brain regions in completing tasks that fall into each of these two categories. And in adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), research has found differences in the degree to which hot and cold cognition are affected (Zimmerman et al., 2016), in that deficits in hot cognition (measured in this study using social cognition tasks) were greater in adults with ASD independently of deficits in cold cognition. All of this research and more supports the idea that these two categories of cognition have some sort of fundamental distinction.

From here, there’s a whole world of cognition out there to explore, whether you choose to focus your efforts on cold cognition or hot cognition. Hopefully you’ve seen here that cold and hot cognition affect how we interact with the world in various ways, and exhibit numerous similarities and differences. By exploring those differences, we can build knowledge around how these abilities work in our daily lives and what happens when we have some difficulty executing them.


Dickinson, D., Iannone, V. N., Wilk, C. M., & Gold, J. M. (2004). General and specific cognitive deficits in schizophrenia. Biological Psychiatry 55, 826-833. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2003.12.010

Nord, C., Halahakoon, D. C., Lally, N., Limbachya, T., Pilling, S., & Roiser, J. (2018). Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex Activity is Impaired in Currently-Depressed Patients, But Intact in Individuals at High Risk: A Three-Group Functional MRI Study of Hot and Cold Cognition. The Lancet.

MacKenzie, L. E., Patterson, V. C., Zwicker, A., Drobinin, V., Fisher, H. L., Abidi, S., … & Pavlova, B. (2017). Hot and cold executive functions in youth with psychotic symptoms. Psychological Medicine47(16), 2844-2853.

Nejati, V., Salehinejad, M. A., & Nitsche, M. A. (2018). Interaction of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (l-DLPFC) and right orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in hot and cold executive functions: Evidence from transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Neuroscience 369, 109-123.

Zimmerman D. L., Ownsworth T., O’Donovan A., Roberts J., & Gullo M. J. (2016). Independence of hot and cold executive function deficits in high-functioning adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10(24). doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00024