Are You a Cognitive Miser?

Stanovich has recently published a very interesting book, What Intelligence Tests Miss: the psychology of rational thought.1 It builds upon the Two Process Theory of Cognition advanced by Kahneman (see the post, “Two Process Theory of Cognition.”). His autonomous mind is identical to Kahneman’s System 1 Processes, which Kahneman calls Intuition. These System 1. or autonomous processes, require little, if any cognitive effort. The run off automatically, they are autonomous.

However, Stanovich divides System 2 processes, which Kahneman terms Reasoning, into the Algorithmic Mind and the Reflective Mind. Do you remember this problem: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 total. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Remember that the majority of college students responded that the ball cost $0.10 and the bat cost $1.00. Now this cost some cognitive effort as the algorithm needed to parse the amounts into $0.10 and $1.00. But this algorithm yielded the wrong answer, but according to Stanovich, it took the Reflective Mind to realize that is answer is incorrect. If the bat cost a dollar more than the ball and the ball cost $0.10, then the bat alone would cost $1.10. When $0.10 is added to this, the total cost is $1.20. So this is incorrect. When the reflective mind reflects upon this it discovers that the ball costs on $0.05. $1.00 more than $0.05 is $1.05. $1.05 plus $0.05 gives the desired $1.10 total.

The term “cognitive miser” is invoked as it is the tendency of most cognitive systems to expend as little effort at possible. Although we can often get away with this “cognition on the cheap”, we occasionally bear the cost of the wrong answer.

Here is another example. It comes from the above referenced book.

Jack is looking at Anne but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

a) Yes

b) No

c) Cannot be determined

So what is your response? Do you agree with the more than 80% of the people who answered c) Cannot be determined? If so, you, along with the large majority of the respondents are cognitive misers! Answering this question correctly places heavy demands on the Reflective Mind. It requires disjunctive reasoning that is slow and systematic. Both possibilities of Anne’s marital status need to be considered. What is she is married? Then Jack is looking at a married person and Anne is looking at an unmarried person. What if Anne is unmarried? Then Jack is looking at an unmarried person and Anne is looking at an unmarried person. So the correct response is a) as there needs to be a married person looking at an unmarried person when all the possibilites are concerned.

These might seem like trivial problems, but they reveal the fundamental miserliness of our cognitive processes. In subsequent postings examples of how this fundamental miserliness leads to wrong decisions, important decisions, will be discussed. If you cannot wait for these postings, then buy the book.

1Stanovich, K. E. (2009). What Intelligence Tests Miss: the psychology of rational thought. New Haven: The Yale University Press.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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