Cognitive Ease: How to Use the Lethargy of our Brains

November 29, 2018

Cognitive Ease

The human brain is lazy by nature. It loves the familiar and shuns any exertion. But that is nothing negative because the brain conserves energy this way, and allows you to develop strategies on how to optimize communication with your customers on websites, social media platforms or newsletters to raise conversion rates.

Theory: Lazy Brain and Cognitive Ease

a) What is Cognitive Ease anyway?

The term cognitive ease became popular with the release of the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by the Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In it he explains that the human brain thinks in two different systems:

System 1 is the everyday thinking that takes place automatically, without much having to be done to support it. It is characterized by rapidity, emotionality, stereotypes and the unconscious mind. Tasks like “What is 2 + 2?” or “Where does the sun rise?” are handled by System 1 because they don’t require much contemplation.

System 2 is consciously guided thinking, which is associated with a large amount of effort for the human brain and proceeds slowly. It is characterized by exertion, logic, calculation and the conscious mind. If for instance the question “What is 85 x 16” is to be answered in your head, this is the system called on.

As the word ease in “cognitive ease” indicates, it concerns System 1, the normal thinking that goes on unnoticed in the background. If your online shop elicits thinking in System 1, it fulfills the concept of cognitive ease. Your customer can simply make a purchase without overexerting his brain with unfamiliar tasks.

b) How is Cognitive Ease Achieved?

To address your customers or your newsletter readers on the cognitive ease level, four factors must be fulfilled.

These four factors create the feeling of cognitive ease (according to Kahneman):

  1. Repeated experience
  2. Clear display
  3. Primed idea*
  4. Good mood

*Primed idea: A stimulus activates certain memory content, which influences how the new stimulus will be interpreted. For example, you read the word “red” and after it the group of letters “r_se” is presented to you. You are more likely to read that word as “rose” than to see the equally possible word “rise”.

c) What Does Cognitive Ease Lead to?

The consequences of cognitive ease are four states that a person experiences.

These four conditions are the outcome of cognitive ease (according to Kahneman):

  1. Feels familiar
  2. Feels true
  3. Feels good
  4. Feels effortless

You can see that the consequences of cognitive ease are ideal to sell, to convey, and to convince or whatever else the objective of your business is.

Practice: Creating Cognitive Ease

Based on a few examples, we would like to illustrate how you place guide customers to a state of cognitive ease.

a) Create Repeated Experiences

Where do you prefer to buy your groceries? Is it always in the same supermarket? Why? Exactly! Because you know where everything is located, and you don’t have to spend forever searching for the vegetables, milk and eggs. In the supermarket of your choice your brain is working on the cognitive ease level. This is why customers get peeved when the grocery store’s marketing experts try out a new placement concept for the products. Then they can’t find anything anymore and have to switch their brains to the System 2 thinking mode. Man is after all a creature of habit.

Practical Examples

Online Store:

Customers are used to seeing a product image on the left side of the page and on the right are the details about it. The buy button can also be found on the right. (A different layout may look great from a graphic perspective, but then the customers would have to stray from their accustomed paths.)


The address fields are placed one underneath the other, with the house number and street on the same line, as well as the postal code and town. The size of the fields on the form should also meet expectations, i.e. a small field for the house number but plenty of room provided for the street name. Thanks to this layout, the address field form corresponds to the familiar structure of an address on a piece of mail.

b) Achieve Clear Display

A text with small, tight font and single line spacing is difficult to read. If the same content is presented in a large, clear font and 1.5 line spacing, reading it becomes much easier. Graphics, lists and tables also break up documents and make comprehending the content more simple. This should be noted for newsletters, websites or product descriptions on ecommerce stores, too.

Practical Examples

Item Description:

They become considerably clear when a bullet point list, where perhaps the most important product features are summarized, is used in addition to a short continuous text.


Highlight important information. Free Delivery is more easily seen than “no delivery charge”.


Related information and elements must also be grouped together. In an online store, for example, when you present the color options for a sweater in a box on the right-hand side, the size options should follow right underneath. Place the elements (color and size) so that they are connected, but still distinguishable from each other.


If you use symbols or icons, then forgo any experiments. Just use the standard symbols for shopping cart, delivery fee, newsletter subscription, etc.

c) Use Primed Ideas

Here it’s all about fulfilling the users’ expectations. If you hear romantic string music in a video, you will also expect correspondingly romantic content. Filmmakers and other artists play with these expectations and break them, but viewers of those films expect that, too. You, however, want to satisfy your customers and users, so make priming work for you.

Practical Examples


If you reference flowery specials in your shop for the start of spring in your newsletter, the reader will also expect to find floral motifs in the shop.

Web Design:

Upon seeing a very fancy, elegant web design, the user will assume that it goes along with a high-priced product offering. If you want to sell inexpensive products, your online shop shouldn’t look like an Apple store.


If you present large format images of people wearing certain brands on the homepage of your online fashion store, you should also have these same brands in your shop’s product offering.

d) Create a Good Mood

People certainly have to perform tasks that are anything but fun. However, if these jobs can be combined with something pleasant, completing them becomes easier and can even be a pleasure. Cleaning the windows can suddenly become fun with the right music, or dropping off the recycling less onerous, if you treat yourself to some ice cream from the stand around the corner afterwards.

Practical Examples

Humorous Shopping Cart:

A shopping cart that has a face and guides you through the next step by using a speech bubble can provide a little humor, especially with a funny comment under it. It must, of course, be a fit with the target audience.

Product Description:

Besides the sober facts in a bullet point list, you can describe items amusingly. In this way the “Bluetooth headphones with active noise cancellation” become the “perfect weapon in the fight against the chatterbox colleague at the next desk.”


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Final Word

Cognitive ease makes it possible for you to approach your target audience and reach them. However, it doesn’t mean that you should do absolutely everything just like your competitors, to use priming and repetition for instance. In most cases breaking the rules generates exactly the notice that is necessary for success.

The best advice would be to combine the suggestions made here with your own individual concepts. In that way you can create an offering that is distinctive and still easily consumable for the brain.


Dieser Artikel wurde am 29.November 2018 von Thomas geschrieben.