Cognitive Ease: How to Use the Lethargy of our Brains
October 13, 2022
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, through cognitive ease, on how to optimize communication with your customers on websites, social media platforms or newsletters to raise conversion rates.
Cognitive ease is the level of ease that is associated with understanding and processing a piece of information. It is a way of thinking that dictates how an individual may perceive the information presented to them.
It is also known as cognitive fluency and measures how much cognitive strain or effort is required to perform a task. It relates to the amount of brain processing required to undertake any task and is often associated with the unconscious part of the brain processing system.
The Etymology of Cognitive Ease
The word “cognitive” is defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thoughts, experiences, and senses. It is derived from the Latin word cognoscere, which means “get to know.” Combined with ease, cognitive ease means ‘to know something with ease.
Cognitive ease is called cognitive fluency, and these words are used synonymously in research and common purposes. It is also often related to the term “cognitive bias,” a pattern of thinking that deviates from the norm. While cognitive ease and cognitive bias may have similar impacts or influences on the individual’s thinking and behavior, they are not the same.
The term “cognitive ease” was brought to wide attention by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate who has published several empirical findings on human rationality. He is an Israeli-American psychologist known for his various research and theories, such as the Prospect Theory. In 2011, he described cognitive ease in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” where he summarizes all his findings and research on cognitive biases and the human thinking process.
How Cognitive Ease Works
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.
The first system (System 1) is related to the subconscious or the unconscious, where things happen automatically without much strain put into thinking. For instance, when asked, “What is your name?” people answer automatically without thinking much about it. Or, when asked to do a simple arithmetic calculation such as 1+1, people can instinctively answer without spending too much time on the calculation. Such types of brain processing where not much contemplation is required will all come under System 1.
System 1 is fast, intuitive, and requires little to no effort. It is also highly influenced by emotional states and is almost automatically carried out without any conscious sense of control. When you use System 1 thinking, you may not always be aware of why you think or do stuff. It just happens instinctively.
The second system of thinking is guided thinking, where one has to put in a good level of effort to process the information presented. For example, if a person were asked to do a complex arithmetic calculator such as 80 * 34, they might actively calculate the answer in their mind. Any thinking that requires active participation, focus, and strain come under System 2. System 2 thinking requires deliberation and logical analysis. It is slower, requires conscious effort, and is usually involved with complex decisions.
Cognitive ease is the capability to arrive at answers with a System 1 type of thinking. Here, the thought process happens in the background without much effort. Thus, when a person is said to have cognitive ease on a particular subject or matter, they do not need to spend a lot of brain power on understanding the related topics.
In general, humans tend to avoid stressful activities that place a strain on their cognition. This kind of lazy brain usage promotes finding cognitive ease. When there is no novelty, no challenge, and an overall good mood, cognitive ease replaces strained thinking.
Here are the most common feelings one might experience when exhibiting cognitive ease toward a particular task:
Familiarity: Known ideas and concepts are processed more easily cognitively than new information. You may tend to be more accepting when something fits your current perception or view.
Effortlessness: Something presented clearly and easily understood also creates cognitive ease. For instance, playing the first few levels of a simple mobile game may feel easier as it is designed to be less complicated and easy to play.
Feel-good and encouraging: Pleasant experiences are considered more effortless than tasks that might involve a negative feeling.
Feels true or right: Things that align with your current views and perceptions will feel more true and thus will require less mental strain in processing.
Cognitive ease cannot always be reasoned with. It combines several factors, variable inputs, and thought processes to create a general impression. You may not always know why you feel at ease with certain things or ideas.
Image: Causes and Consequences of Cognitive Ease (adapted from Kahneman 2011)
Readers who are quite familiar with the English language can read sentences like the one below without much effort.
‘ Yuo’re Albe To Raed Tihs’
Even though the sentence has many misspellings, a fluent English reader can easily get the words without thinking twice.
It is the state of mind where you do things without stressing how to do them. You do it without much mental strain.
Factors that promote Cognitive Ease
Cognitive ease is often achieved when a person is already familiar with the task. Here are the four significant factors that can help create the feeling of cognitive ease.
How to achieve Cognitive Ease
As can be seen from the factors that promote cognitive ease, the key to achieving the same depends on improving these factors.
Building familiarity comes with repeated experiences. For instance, if you seek to achieve cognitive ease by reading music sheets, the best way would be to keep practicing the same. Similarly, consider finding the items on your pantry shelf. Developing a consistent placement of materials and things in your pantry would make it easier for you to reach them after a while.
The more a task requires you to think each time differently, the more System 2 thinking will be employed. But if the task requires repetition, it becomes easier to adapt it to the System 1 type of thinking and thus promotes cognitive ease.
Any subject that is presented with clear instructions and is easily digestible can promote cognitive ease. For instance, text written in regular font styles such as Arial is often easy to notice. Shorter sentences and common vocabulary are easier to understand. Simpler instructions with pictured visual guides require less mental effort. As you drive your car, the road signs on the highways can be one such example.
Use Primed Ideas
Primed ideas are a kind of mental conditioning where a certain type of stimulus is expected to provide a certain type of event. For instance, when you press a doorbell, you automatically know it will create a ringing sound. The same goes for many of the action-oriented tasks that people undertake on a routine basis.
We can promote cognitive ease by understanding the association between a stimulus and the corresponding event.
Cognitive ease thus implies that when you observe a particular event, you automatically know what follows it or create certain expectations. Subversion of this relationship between expected behavior and its stimulus could make a person feel confused and exert more mental effort to understand the said behavior.
Create a Good Experience
A good environment and a pleasant feeling go a long way in making things seem easier. Tasks in a good mood promote a sense of confidence and encouragement to repeat them the same way. Thus, cognitive ease with a certain task can be improved if it can be made fun in some way. For instance, adding a good bit of music to everyday tasks like cleaning, washing clothes, and so on can help ease your mind and be more receptive to these tasks. Similarly, if a study session is made to be more fun and pleasant, the student will feel less strained while making an effort to study.
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.
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.”
Product descriptions that are written convincingly and vividly can be ordered via clickworker.
It is also important to emphasize its impact on developing cognitive biases.
You develop cognitive ease with ideas that are more familiar to you. This leads to a biased perception where old ideas are embraced readily compared to new ideas. Newer ideas might come off as shocking; thus, people might reject new ideas no matter how credible they are.
As cognitive ease is associated with good feelings, it often affects your emotional state and thus shapes how you perceive things around you. Studies have shown that people remember happy memories more accurately than sad ones. As we don’t actively think or engage when feeling cognitive ease, it might also result in us sticking to known biases rather than finding accuracy in perceived matters.
Cognitive ease is associated with System 2 thinking and is thus inherently more vulnerable to biases. This could create several inaccuracies in recalling memories (illusions of remembering) and processing the truthfulness (illusions of truth) of a given statement.
Any information that aims to improve cognitive ease will be considered more legitimate and can thus impact a person’s decision-making skills to a high degree.
For instance, it could be easier to get fooled by a seemingly false statement if it is made in such a way as to make the reader feel good or align with their existing beliefs. Thus, someone already familiar with certain conspiracies will easily believe hoaxes, such as the Flat Earth Theory.
This is also the case with people believing repetitive lies to be truthful statements. Repetition of the same lie cements them as believable notions due to the cognitive ease it creates.
The Benefits and Drawbacks
Understanding the phenomenon of cognitive ease can help in better marketing and interpersonal communications. It can also facilitate a positive environment where people feel at ease.
Here are some ways cognitive ease can be utilized positively.
Creating concise and clear content can help you relate to the audience better. It will also improve the audience’s reception of the content being delivered. Compared to lengthy product descriptions, simple, repetitive marketing phrases can thus help attract more people. Similarly, plain English with little jargon and images helps a reader understand the content more easily.
Understanding this practice can help design products that are user-friendly and require less mental effort to use. Creating accessible web pages, instruction manuals, guides, and study materials can be done more effectively when cognitive ease is considered.
Pleasant experiences can be created to make routine tasks and manual labor more enjoyable.
Now, let’s have a look at some of the drawbacks:
The more effort it takes to complete a task, the more it is often associated with a negative view. The easier it is, the more positive feelings it will bring. Thus, the feeling of cognitive ease can compartmentalize a person’s learning experience to only that stuff that makes them feel good. Unfamiliar experiences are met with negative reception, suspicion, and rejection. In contrast, seemingly familiar information that is inaccurate will be perceived to be more acceptable.
Promoting cognitive easiness can also lead to cognitive biases and, thus, logical errors.
Since cognitive ease can be both a cause and effect of a feeling-good sensation, it can be used to spread false statements and perpetuate misinformation.
Overcoming the mental hurdle posed by cognitive ease can be challenging for people trying to dissect information and arrive at accurate and logical conclusions.
How to avoid Cognitive Biases
Cognitive ease can be a great mental tool to help carry out known tasks. But you should take extra caution not to let it affect your decision-making and judgment skills. Here are some ways to overcome the biases that cognitive ease can create.
Be willing to accept new and different views.
Always do your due diligence when receiving new information. Do not simply believe it because it aligns with previous information. Try to investigate and look deeper so you can fully understand the new piece of information.
Try to gather information from multiple sources to validate it.
Do not get trapped in the feel-goodness that cognitive ease brings. While learning new things might be uncomfortable, the feeling of unease shows that you are actively engaging and thinking.
Realizing the impact of cognitive ease and biases is important to pave the way for better research and acceptance of innovations. As cognitive ease could affect the rationality of decision-making, being aware of the phenomenon is necessary to avoid such pitfalls.
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.
FAQs on Cognitive Ease
What are common examples of cognitive ease?
Cognitive ease is the state of being able to think easily and effortlessly. When we are in a state of cognitive ease, our minds are relaxed and we can think more clearly. Some common examples of cognitive ease are being able to think quickly and effortlessly, having a sharp memory, and being able to focus easily.
What gives rise to cognitive ease?
Cognitive ease is the state of mind that allows us to think effortlessly about something. When we are in a state of cognitive ease, our brain is able to process information quickly and efficiently. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including prior knowledge about the subject matter, a clear and concise explanation, and simple language.
How is cognitive ease related to AI?
Cognitive ease is the state of being able to think easily and effortlessly. It's related to AI because cognitive ease is necessary for humans to be able to interact with artificial intelligence. If cognitive ease is not present, then humans will have difficulty understanding and interacting with AI.
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