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Blog:  Expert Corner

Executive Functions: They Can Be Hot or Cool

Expert Corner blog post by Philip D Zelazo
Oct 05, 2016

Boy looking out the window

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 functions.

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 functions referred to as “cold” executive functions.)

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

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 they’re still challenging sometimes for me as an adult.

I’ve always been fascinated by the executive functioning 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 functioning 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 functions, they’re usually tested in a low-stakes way. This is why they’re referred to as “cool” executive functioning skills. For example, a widely used test of working memory asks children 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 functioning 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 functioning 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 functions. 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 Ph.D. 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 are done playing games, she can get four candies to eat later. What should Angela do?

Most children tell 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 are not personally affected by the consequences of that person’s decision. We can stay cool.

Hot executive functioning 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 functions helps us make sense of this phenomenon. Children need a certain level of cool executive functioning 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 functions can’t handle it. They typically opt for immediate gratification.

Similar distinctions between hot and cool executive functions can be seen in older children too. 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 very interested in these moments. But I’m very interested as a parent too. How can we help our kids make good choices?

Helping Kids Improve Hot and Cool Executive Functioning 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.

Indeed, both hot and cool executive skills can be improved through practice. One way to help practice these skills is by reducing the demands placed on young children’s executive functions 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 children chances to exercise and grow their executive functioning skills in situations kids can manage. This allows them to practice their skills successfully.

As kids’ executive functioning 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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About the Blogger

Portrait of Philip David Zelazo, Courtesy University of Minnesota

Philip D. Zelazo is the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.

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