A bat and a ball cost a total of € 1,10. If the bat costs 1 euro more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
This was one of the questions that psychologists at the National Center for Scientific Research in France asked 248 university students. Without thinking much about it, 79% said the bat cost 1 euro and the ball 10 cents.
The answer was wrong. In reality, the ball cost 5 cents and the club 1,05 euros. Most people are wrong because they are victims of cognitive laziness.
What is cognitive laziness?
Thinking is difficult. Our brain is a kind of pattern recognition machine. This is why we are happy when things adapt to the mental patterns we already have, and when they don't, we try in every way to adapt them to our pre-established ways of thinking.
We seldom take the time or allocate enough mental energy to construct new patterns that can explain events and phenomena that do not fit our worldview.
We usually ignore logic and apply a "lazy" heuristic. Heuristics are strategies we use to speed up information processing and find an adequate response. They are mental paths to quickly reach solutions or explanations.
Obviously, heuristics save us an enormous amount of mental energy. But if we trust them too much, without changing them, we can fall into a state of mental stagnation, known as "cognitive laziness". This cognitive laziness becomes even more acute when we are faced with complex situations that have no simple answer.
Cognitive laziness, the grave of creativity
Have you ever seen the wheels of a train up close? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip that prevents them from going off the rails. However, originally train wheels did not have that design, that safety measure applied to the tracks, according to expert Michael Michalko.
At the beginning the problem was posed in the following terms: how can safer tracks be created for trains? As a result, hundreds of thousands of kilometers of track were built with an unnecessary steel edge, with the consequent expense involved. The insight came when engineers rephrased the problem: How can you make wheels that make tracks safer?
The truth is, once we see things from one perspective, we close the door to other possibilities and focus on developing a single line of thinking. Let's explore in one direction only. That's why only certain kinds of ideas come to mind and others don't even cross our minds. To reach other creative possibilities we need to broaden our vision.
Indeed, one of the forms that cognitive laziness takes is to accept our impressions of problems, conflicts or concerns. Once we have established a starting point, we do not look for other ways to understand reality.
But as with our first impression of a person, the initial perspective on problems and situations tends to be narrow and superficial. We see no further than what we expect to see based on our experiences and our way of thinking. This means that cognitive laziness makes us avoid possible solutions and that we close the door to creativity.
Those who do not think are easier to deceive
Cognitive laziness doesn't just go against creativity, it can also make us more suggestible and manipulable. The tendency to follow existing mental patterns leads us to accept certain beliefs or information without questioning them.
In 2019, a group of researchers from Yale University asked 3.446 people to rate the accuracy of a series of news headlines posted on Facebook. The results were surprising.
They discovered that we are actually not much more likely to believe fake news when it aligns with our worldview, but rather that it is cognitive laziness. Self-deception or reasoned reasoning is only part of the explanation of the fake news phenomenon, the other is that we behave like cognitive misers.
These researchers found that people who have more analytical thinking have a keener ability to separate truth from lies, even if the content of the fake news conforms to their conceptions and perception of the world.
This means that, instead of critically evaluating the information we consume, we resort to other heuristics, such as the credibility of the source, the status of the author or the familiarity with certain information, which prevents us from determining its degree of accuracy and makes us more inclined to believe in falsehoods or stereotypes.
Reversible thinking as an antidote to cognitive laziness
We all have limited ability to process information, so we take mental shortcuts whenever we can. There is no shame in this. Stereotypes are an example of such mental shortcuts. It is a simplification of complex situations that helps us to face them with a simple model in which we insert the wealth of people and the world. The good news is that being aware that we all suffer from cognitive laziness helps us fight it.
To do this we must start from the fact that not everything always fits into our mental schemes. In fact, it's good that things don't fit together because that discrepancy is what allows us to open our minds and expand our worldview.
When we are faced with a fact, phenomenon or idea that deviates from our way of thinking, we have two options: to try to adapt it in any way or to accept that our mental schemes are not enough to explain what is happening or to seek a solution.
Reversible thinking, understood as the ability to think about things in different directions, is the best antidote to cognitive laziness. To apply it we must develop the ability to see things from our usual perspective, but also from the opposite one. In this way we are able to include opposites and intermediate options. In practice, one must contemplate one possibility, but also its opposite.
It is important to remember that to fall into cognitive laziness, a small signal is enough to tell us that we are right or to reaffirm our thinking. It is easier to believe than to think. Reversible thinking encourages us to pay attention to the opposite direction and to take note of those clues that indicate that we may be wrong, signs that there may be gaps in our heuristics and our mental schemes.
So we have to put aside judgments, reinterpret the facts, accept them and make the necessary changes to expand our conceptions and ways of thinking. This will help us develop a richer perspective on the world and keep an open mind.