All of us, some more and some less, are cognitive misers. We live in a complex and uncertain world that is constantly changing. Every day we are faced with so many stimuli and variables to consider that it is perfectly understandable that our brain takes shortcuts by selecting the information that best suits our beliefs. So we don't have to make a lot of mental effort. But mental laziness has consequences. And these aren't exactly positive.
What is cognitive avarice?
In 1984, psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor first proposed the concept of a cognitive miser. They used it to define "those people who have a limited ability to process information, so they take shortcuts whenever they can".
But the truth is that we are all cognitive stingy at certain times because we have a tendency to choose the shortest paths in daily life. Rather than acting like rational scientists by carefully weighing the costs and benefits of different opportunities, testing hypotheses, or updating expectations and conclusions based on the results, we simply indulge in cognitive laziness by choosing the easy way out.
Obviously, we are more likely to use mental shortcuts when we are faced with uncertain and complex situations or when we know little about what is happening. In these cases, we try to simplify the problem. We are guided by a fundamental principle: to save as much mental energy as possible, even in those situations where it would be necessary to "use your head".
The path that the cognitive misers walk
Cognitive misers tend to act in two ways: by ignoring information to reduce cognitive load or by overestimating some data so that they don't have to search for or process different information that could undermine their beliefs and assumptions. Therefore, they are particularly prone to confirmation bias.
In practice, the cognitive miser has a tendency to seek, focus and favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses, giving excessive value to that data, ignoring the details that can counter their ideas, simply because evaluating them implies a greater mental effort.
The cognitive misers, instead of searching through all the evidence related to the problem or decision they have to make, focus on the information that supports their hypothesis or initial alternative, ignoring or diminishing the value of the conflicting or discordant data. Therefore, they initiate a partial information search process that prevents them from seeing the problem holistically.
They also tend to interpret information partially, giving more relevance to the data that support their theories and worldview. As a result of this non-rational thinking, they end up building poorly adaptive mental patterns that don't match reality or developing stereotypes that become self-limiting.
The consequences of cognitive avarice
Thinking little makes us less rational and more prone to fall into the traps of stereotypes and prejudices. This lack of knowledge and, above all, motivated ignorance, give rise to a partial and not very rational vision of the world that prevents us from behaving in an adaptive way.
Taking mental shortcuts can be convenient when we walk down the street because our mind is not able to process all the stimuli that come to us, but doing it when faced with important and complex problems in life leads us to make bad decisions.
When we are unable to get a general idea of the problem we are facing and see it in a partial and polarized way, we are likely to ignore the relevant variables and make hasty decisions that we will later regret.
Another effect of cognitive avarice is that it diminishes our ability to correctly assess risks. When we apply cognitive shortcuts, we overlook important data, small signals that help us understand how a series of errors can have catastrophic effects. As a result of this cognitive blindness, we are less likely to learn our lesson for the future.
Closed in the echo chamber that we have built for ourselves, we do not see the world clearly, but we limit ourselves to reinforcing our beliefs, stereotypes and prejudices, keeping them in a closed system safe from possible denials.
Stop being a cognitive miser
In 2013, researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research posed this question to 248 college students: “A club and a ball together cost $ 1,10. The bat costs $ 1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? "
Without thinking too much, most of the attendees replied that the bat cost $ 1 while the ball alone cost 10 cents. It is not so! The ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $ 1,05.
79% of the participants took a mental shortcut. They did not bother to think and perform the simple mathematical operation. The curious fact, however, is that most people admitted they were unsure of their answer. In a way, they knew they had behaved like cognitive misers.
In real life, these cognitive shortcuts are harder to spot, but it's worth paying more attention to our intuition. If we are not very sure of an important decision that we have made too lightly, our unconscious is probably warning us that we have been cognitively miserly.
Another way to get around the mental shortcuts is to stop and ask yourself if we have really evaluated all the possible variables or if we have analyzed the situation with an open mind. Fiske explained that when we are worried or distracted, we have less mental space to think carefully. Conversely, when we resume our routine and feel calm, we tend to think more rationally, cautiously, and openly.
In any case, we must be aware that mental shortcuts can be both rational and irrational. They are rational when they help us make quick decisions in emergency contexts, but they are irrational when they push us to ignore all information that contradicts our point of view and helps us to form a more faithful picture of reality in situations where we have enough. time to reflect on the next steps.
We must not forget that "intelligent people believe strange things because they have been prepared to defend the beliefs they have come to for unintelligent reasons," as Michael Shermer said.