Executive function skills: They can be hot or cool

We all know it can be a lot harder to think things through in the heat of the moment or when we’re frustrated or angry. But why is that? What’s happening in our brain? To understand why kids — and adults — make decisions differently depending on whether the stakes are high or low, it helps to learn about hot and cool executive function skills.

Hot executive functions refer to the self-management skills we use in situations where emotions run high. Cool executive functions refer to the skills we use when emotions aren’t really a factor. (You may also hear cool executive skills referred to as cold .)

You might know from personal experience how hard it can be to resist temptation or to stay focused on a boring task. It can also be difficult to break an old habit or even to stop from responding in anger in the heat of the moment.

These are examples of deliberate self-regulation. They require some concerted conscious effort to accomplish. They were harder to do when I was a child and could be quite frustrating when I was a teenager. And sometimes they’re still challenging for me as an adult.

I’ve always been fascinated by the executive skills needed to give this kind of effort. As a scientist, I’ve studied how the brain develops these skills. My research also looks at how emotion and other factors can affect the way we use three core executive skills:

  1. Cognitive flexibility: Thinking flexibly about something, including seeing things from another point of view

  2. Working memory: Holding information in mind and working with it, like when adding two numbers in your head

  3. Inhibitory control: Stopping impulsive responses and resisting distraction

When a researcher or a clinician wants to test executive function skills, they’re usually tested in a low-stakes way. This is why they’re referred to as “cool” executive skills. For example, a widely used test of working memory asks kids to remember a list of numbers and then say them in the reverse order, from last to first.

This test is challenging, to be sure. But it’s not overly emotional.

What happens in our brains when the stakes are higher? We use “hot” executive skills to help us control our emotional reactions. Skills like flexible thinking also help us figure out how to approach — or avoid — things that really matter to us.

Labs like mine use brain scans to see the different pathways the brain uses when the stakes are high or low. Hot and cool executive skills rely on closely related parts of the brain. They typically work together to allow us to solve problems, accomplish a goal, and learn efficiently. The brain can quickly shift back and forth between them.

The marshmallow test — with a twist

Angela Prencipe and I conducted a study with young children that illustrates the distinction between hot and cool executive skills. To do this, we took a look at the famous marshmallow test. And we gave it a twist.

In our study, 3-year-olds sat at a small table with Angela, a PhD student, who asked the kids to help her solve a problem. Angela can have one candy to eat now, or, if she waits until they’re done playing games, she can get four candies to eat later. What should Angela do?

Most children told Angela she should wait and get more candy to eat later. A wise choice. However, when 3-year-olds themselves were given the same choice (Do you want one candy to eat now, or four candies to eat later?), they usually chose one candy now.

The 3-year-olds gave perfectly good advice to others in the cool executive function condition (decide for Angela). But they failed to follow that good advice themselves in the hot executive function condition (decide for themselves). They gave in to temptation.

It’s often easier to think objectively about a stranger’s difficult choice than about our own. That’s because we’re not personally affected by the consequences of that person’s decision. We can stay cool.

Hot executive skills allow us to think more objectively about our own meaningful decisions. These skills can help us resist temptation for the sake of a more important goal.

Knowing about hot and cool executive function skills helps us make sense of this phenomenon. Kids need a certain level of cool executive skills to weigh Angela’s alternatives (more later vs. less now) and choose to wait for a larger reward. They can easily imagine that she will soon be happier with more. Most 3-year-olds already have these skills.

But when choosing for themselves, these children not only had to weigh the same information (more later vs. less now), but also had to resist temptation (candy now!). This is too big a challenge for most 3-year-olds. Their hot executive skills can’t handle it. They typically opt for immediate gratification.

Similar distinctions between hot and cool executive function skills can be seen in older children. Think about risky decision-making and teens. An emotional context like peer pressure helps explain why some teens choose to drink and drive even though they know they shouldn’t.

As a scientist, I’m interested in these moments. But I’m interested as a parent too. How can we help our kids make good choices?

Helping kids improve hot and cool executive function skills

Developing strategies ahead of time can be helpful. Role-play can help kids prepare for stressful situations. Practicing what to do or say might make it easier for our kids to make the decision we hope they’ll make.

Both hot and cool executive function skills can be improved through practice. One way to help practice these skills is by reducing the demands placed on young children’s executive skills so the task is challenging — but not too challenging. This can be as simple as giving one direction at a time. Or removing hot, desirable distractions so kids don’t have to work so hard to stay focused.

Parents can give kids chances to exercise and grow their executive skills in situations they can manage. This allows them to practice their skills successfully.

As kids’ executive skills become better through practice, the challenge can be increased. This will help strengthen those skills even more. In this way, parents can help kids acquire deliberate self-regulation skills. These hot and cool skills will help them solve a wide range of problems, from doing well in school to making smart choices as a teenager.


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