STEER researches human biases to improve human steering

Three decades of research in social psychology has demonstrated that the situations, the contexts, even mundane features of the environments that surround us have a profound influence on how we think, how we feel, the choices we make, and the goals we pursue -- quite often without our being aware of or intending those influences at all. If schools can now obtain feedback on the unseen impacts of their school campus environment on the developing minds of their students, through a technology like AS Tracking, this has great potential for more effective educational management - and thereby in unlocking the potential of our children.

Professor John Bargh, Yale University, author of Before You Know It

What is Steering Cognition?

Steering Cognition is a model of human biases. Steering cognition describes an executive function which regulates how we consciously and unconsciously bias our attention and response to the environment around us.

STEER has been researching steering cognition since 2000, through a quantitative and qualitative research programme in the UK and internationally led by Dr Simon P. Walker. The programme has involved many researchers and more than 15,000 study participants and has measured the priming effects of school teaching, pastoral care, school approaches, interventions and structures on the steering biases of children. You can find full explanations and publications at

Steering Cognition is a model to explain how the brain biases attention toward specific stimuli whilst ignoring others, before coordinating responsive actions which cohere with our past patterns of self-representation. Steering Cognition enables us to use our limited cognitive resources to make sense of the world that we expect to see. The analogy of the car is sometimes used to explain Steering Cognition. As the 'controls of our mind', Steering Cognition regulates its direction, brakes and gears. Studies have shown that it is distinct from the 'engine' of our mind, sometimes referred to as 'algorithmic processing', which is responsible for how we process complex calculations.

Regulating our Steering Cognition involves conscious effort; much like driving off-road, we particularly need to regulate our Steering Cognition when we are facing unpredictable and varied situations and stimuli. Failing to do so can result in cognitive, affective and social biases. The state of our Steering Cognition at any time is influenced by the priming effect of the surrounding environment. Studies have shown that environmental biasing of our Steering Cognition can contribute to non-conscious in-group behaviours, e.g. an increased likelihood of group-think or emotional contagion.

Studies have shown that during adolescence individuals develop more fixed patterns of steering. By adulthood, these patterns become recognisable as mental traits, behaviours and social attributes. There is some evidence that people with more flexible Steering Cognition are advantaged in jobs which require greater social or cognitive dexterity. Steering Cognition has been shown to depend on our ability to mentally simulate, or imagine ourselves performing tasks and functions. As such, Steering Cognition requires the capacity to self-represent, associating memories of our past and possible future selves. Steering Cognition has been shown to implicate our emotional (affective), social and abstract cognitions.

The term 'Steering Cognition' was coined by the researcher Simon P. Walker who discovered consistent, replicable patterns of attention and corresponding response through repeated cognitive tests between 2000 and 2015, in studies with over 15,000 individuals. Working with his colleague Jo Walker, he was able to show that these patterns correlated with other cognitive attributes such as mental wellbeing, social competency and academic performance. Together, Walker and Walker conjecture that Steering Cognition is a central mechanism by which people self-regulate their cognitive, emotional and social states.

Why is Steering Cognition important in education?

Steering Cognition has the potential to explain previously unquantified effects of education which have significant consequences for pupil learning and welfare.

The importance of Steering Cognition lies in its explanation of human behaviours which lead to either risks or advantages for individuals and collective groups. A car driver with poor control will increase risks for himself and others. Similarly, individuals with poor Steering Cognition may increase risks for themselves and others whilst those with better steering travel further and more safely. Importantly, the ability to regulate one's Steering Cognition is unrelated to IQ or rational group behaviour, so measuring Steering Cognition offers an explanation of behaviours and events not currently detected by rational thinking metrics or models.

  • Poorly regulated Steering Cognition has been shown to correlate strongly with increased mental health and welfare risks during adolescence. A study in 2015 showed that pupils with certain fixed biases in their Steering Cognition were four times more likely to exhibit self-harm, be bullied or not cope with school pressures.
  • Secondary school environments which focus on accelerating pupil progress against narrow academic targets have been shown to impede the development of pupils' ability to regulate their Steering Cognition, leading to some potentially increased mental health and welfare risks.
  • Closed group environments have been shown to result in collective biases in Steering Cognition, which increase in-group defensiveness, cognitive blindness and potential prejudice. This suggests that, at a cognitive level, radicalisation may involve the biasing of individuals' Steering Cognition, through closed environmental priming effects, which in turn lead to hostile attitudes and actions.
  • The ability to regulate your Steering Cognition has been shown to account for up to 15% of academic outcomes at secondary school. Unlike IQ, Steering Cognition can be improved through coaching and specific teaching approaches, providing a potentially untapped educational dividend for schools.
  • A large 2014 study showed that Boarding school education results in better pupil ability to regulate Steering Cognition across social situations than Day school education. This is conjectured to lead to continued social advantages beyond school, such as access to future in-group benefits in work and wider society. Such an effect may contribute to different social and employment outcomes for those from fee paying boarding schools, despite improvements in academic standards across all sectors of society.
  • Employers have been shown to seek employees for higher-level roles such as management and leadership who have better, more flexible Steering Cognition.

  • Primary quantitative research into steering cognition

    Thinking, Straight or True?, Walker Simon P., 2015

    A detailed publication of empirical methods and findings from a wide 15 year research programme describing our central claims: the cognitive, social and mental health implications of the self-regulation of Steering Cognition.

    Mental health risks of the Motorway Model of education

    Publication of our 2015 study involving more than 6,000 pupils across 16 UK secondary schools which answered the question: Is there a link between schools exhibiting the characteristics of the Motorway Model and increased pupil mental health risks?

    As tracking datamodel: theoretical papers and literature reviews underpinning the datamodel of as tracking

    STEER uses its research into human biases to develop ground-breaking tools

    STEER has successfully built a set of ground-breaking educational technologies from its pioneering research. These tools include AS Tracking, developed to detect students' social-emotional risks earlier by tracking their emerging steering biases; CAS Tracking, developed to improve teaching and learning, by identifying biases which are limiting learning in the classroom; and USTEER, developed to train students leaving school to steer their biases in a healthy, independent way, as they prepare for the challenges of the workplace or higher education.



    Teacher experiences of AS Tracking Dissertation

    The most recent independent report into the efficacy of STEER's mental health programme AS Tracking has just been published. You can read Rosi Lewis' MSc dissertation undertaken at Oxford Brookes University here: ' What are some teachers’ experiences of using Affective Social Tracking data to support proactive, targeted pastoral care in schools? '

    Download the Dissertation

    What literature underpins Steering Cognition?

    Steering Cognition is a term coined by Simon P. Walker to describe a novel construct which is associated with the following major existing research literature fields in cognitive and social psychology:

    Steering cognition is a model of social and cognitive executive function. It is explains a functional governor mechanism by which the mind coordinates attention and executes responsive action.

    Steering cognition is a model of metacognition. It describes the capacity of the mind to exert conscious control over its reasoning and processing strategies in relation to external data and internal state

    Steering cognition is an explanatory mechanism of some phenomena of affective, cognitive and social self-regulation. It describes effortful control processes which exhibit depletion after strain.

    Steering cognition has been repeatedly shown to implicate the mind's mental simulation circuitry. As such, it is associated with functional neural circuits involved in projective and retrospective memory, self-representation, associative processing and imagination.

    Steering cognition provides an account of the transitioning process from non-conscious, or automatic, to conscious processing that occurs in the mind (see dual process theory).

    According to the steering cognition model, dual process system 1 functions as a serial cognitive steering processor for system 2, rather than the traditionally understood parallel system. In order to process epistemically varied environmental data, a steering cognition orientation system is required to align varied, incoming environmental data with existing neural algorithmic processes. The brain’s associative simulation capacity, centered around the imagination, plays an integrator role to perform this function (see

    In the cognitive steering model, a conscious state emerges from effortful associative simulation, required to align novel data accurately with remote memory, via later algorithmic processes. By contrast, fast unconscious automaticity is constituted by unregulated simulatory biases, which induce errors in subsequent algorithmic processes. The phrase ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ is used to explain errorful steering cognition processing: errors will always occur if the accuracy of initial retrieval and location of data is poorly self-regulated.

    Steering cognition provides an explanation of how the mind is nonconsciously influenced by the environmental cues, or primes, around it. Steering cognition studies have produced data of attentional bias best explained by environmental priming.

    Steering cognition has been shown to rely upon associative rather than algorithmic cognitive processing and is best understood as heuristic in purpose- guiding the direction of our mind. Steering cognition conceptualises the relationship between these algorithmic and associative functions as serial rather than parallel pathways. Our steering cognition guides our attention prior to algorithmic data processing.

    A specific data model, human ecology theory, underpins the steering cognition findings to date. Walker conducted variatiants of the same cognitive test with more than 11,000 candidates between the ages of 8 and 60 between 2002 and 2015. Using principle component analysis, walker was able to identify 7 latent largely independent ‘heuristic substitution’ factors which he labelled s, l, x, p, m, o, t . Subsequent exploratory factor analysis confirmed a largely orthogonal factor analysis structure. In 2014 walker referred to this 7 factor model as the human ecology model of cas state – cognitive affective social state . Also that year, walker j. Described four of the factors in greater detail (s, l, x and p) elucidating the relationships of the factors to affective-social self-regulation literature.

    If you would like to know more

    Wikipedia- steering cognition page - research page

    Dr Simon Walker - primary researcher's web site**