Over the past five years, Robert Bramson has asked several thousand people what seems like a simple question: "How do you think about things?"

"Most people find this extremely difficult to answer," says the 56-year-old organizational psychologist. "The typical response is a surprised stare, a blank look and words like, 'What do you mean, how do I think? I just think, that's all, as anybody else does.' "

What most people don't realize, Bramson says, is that "in our Western world there are five distinct approaches to thinking: Synthesist, Idealist, Pragmatist, Analyst and Realist. Each is useful in a given situation, but can be catastrophic if overused or used inappropriately. Yet almost all of us learn only one or two sets of strategies, and we go through life using them no matter what the situation.

"All around us we see people achieving success using strategies very different from our own. But despite the evidence, we persist in the ways that we believe work for us. We impose our own limitations, and we find it hard to understand those who persist in their own peculiar methods."

Psychologists call this human tendency "assuming similarity."

"In the absence of evidence to the contrary," says Bramson, "most people, most of the time assume others are just like them--only a little defective. Or, if their self-esteem is low, they think others are just like them only a little superior."

Bramson began researching styles of thinking in 1975 while trying to discover "why intelligent managers make terrible decisions." He and colleagues at their Berkeley, Calif., management-consulting firm uncovered two major studies relevant to the "problem-solving" issue: Philosopher C. West Churchman had identified five "inquiry modes" used by scientists, and Harvard professor Jerome Bruner had described four "conceptual strategies."

From this and other research (including Aristotle's description of the four different approaches to arguing) they isolated five styles of thinking and developed a test to determine thinking-style preference. In five years of conducting workshops and testing several thousand people--mostly white-collar professionals--they have isolated these characteristics of each style:

* Idealists: Receptive and inquiring. Tend to focus on similarities among people and try to assimilate disparate views into a solution that will have something for everyone. Ethical, future-oriented and concerned with social values and goals. Excel in articulating goals and seeing the broad picture, but may try too hard for "perfect" solutions and screen out hard data and details.

Under stress, idealists often look hurt.

Analysts: Detail-oriented. Approach problems in a careful and methodical way. Gather as much information as possible before making a decision and look for the "one best way" to proceed. View themselves as factual, down-to-earth, practical people and view the world as logical, ordered and predictable. May screen out values and subjective factors and can appear inflexible and overly cautious.

Cool, studious and often hard to read, analysts under stress often withdraw.

* Pragmatists: Flexible and adaptive. Focus on the shortest route to the payoff and excel at finding new ways of doing things with materials at hand. Believe the world is neither predictable nor understandable and are interested in "whatever works." May seem unpredictable, but tend to have well-developed social skills and are often well-liked.

Under stress, pragmatists may look bored.

* Synthesists: Like to rearrange seemingly disparate things into new, creative combinations. Habitually question people's basic assumptions about things and enjoy philosophical arguments. Not likely to be interested in compromise or consensus.. Best in controversial, conflict-laden situations. May be labeled as "troublemakers."

Under stress, synthesists tend to poke fun.

* Realists: View "reality" as whatever they can feel, smell, see, hear or experience. Believe that any two intelligent people ought to agree on the facts, and if something is wrong, want to fix it. Have a need to achieve and be in control. Pride themselves on incisiveness and can become impatient easily. Good at simplifying a problem and providing drive and momentum, but may try too hard for consensus and rush to over-simplified solutions.

Realists under stress become agitated.

The most popular style of thinking in this country, says Bramson, is Idealist with 37 percent of those tested showing that preference. Other styles, in order: Analyst (35 percent), Realist (24 percent), Pragmatist (18 percent) and Synthesist (11 percent).

"In the workplace we glorify the realists and analysts," he says, "and stomp out the synthesists. In the '60s there was a resurgence of interest in the synthesist style of thinking--which often comes up with new, fresh ideas--but today we tend to see them as troublemakers.

"In other cultures, style preferences may differ. That's something we're interested in testing. I believe there's likely a genetic bias toward one or two styles, which may be amplified or contradicted by early learning."

Sex is not a factor, Bramson claims, in the way people think. "We were surprised that we didn't find a difference in the style preference between men and women."

Occupations are, however, linked to style preferences.

"What we found," he says, "unfortunately supports the stereotypes. Social workers, for example, peak in idealist and are low in analyst, while budget officers are the exact opposite. . . Which makes it clear why the two groups often have trouble communicating. That can lead to poor use of funding."

On the basis of his study, Bramson believes that about half the population tends to rely on a single style of thinking and about 35 percent favors a combination of two styles.

Albert Einstein, he says, was probably an Analyst/Synthesist: "He had a vision, then backed it up with data." Thomas Jefferson was likely a "Synthesist/Idealist" who continually upset and confused "Analyst/Realist" Alexander Hamilton.

Ronald Reagan's style, he says, "is difficult to determine since he's so good at presenting himself . . . but he exemplifies the politician's profile: Realist/Pragmatist."

There is, stresses Bramson, no "best" style. "This is not a measure of ability, but of how you use your intellect. Each individual must stop wishing they were different, learn to be more skillful with the strengths they have and acknowledge their liabilities--which are usually simply the overuse or inappropriate use of their strengths."

Someone who learns to recognize the errors their preferred style of thinking may lead to, he says, can compensate for blind spots. The best way to broaden a style repertoire, he says, is to "link up with someone who is high in the areas you are low in and listen to them.

"My wife, who is also my partner, is a Pragmatist/Realist, low in Synthesist, while I'm a Synthesist/Realist, low in Pragmatist. She values the ideas I have as a Synthesist, but she can bring me down to earth when I've got my head in the clouds. We're sensitive to the ways we differ, try to listen and respect one another and value that different style of thinking."