The Tri-Process Model of Cognition and Cognitive Miserliness

The Tri-Process Model of Cognition (Stanovich, 2011) offers a more complete model of cognition and a better prescriptive model of how to think. All System Two processes, including both the Algorithmic Mind and the Rational Mind require attention. In other words, they require thinking and mental effort. It’s a model of how to think thoroughly. Try to recall all relevant information. Run mental simulations regarding how different courses of action might result. The failure to use adequate mental resources (the failure to think) is what is termed cognitive miserliness. We are cognitive misers when we don’t use the cognitive resources we have. And most of the time this is due to an unwillingness to exert adequate mental effort.

Now for our minds to work effectively we need to have stored relevant information. Our Rational Mind should inform us when we need to look for more information. Mindware is also needed. Mindware needs to include methods for critical thinking. All of this should be part of our formal education, but the majority of what we need to do is a matter of self-education. We need to be auto-didacts throughout the entire course of our lives. It is true that our thinking is often time constrained. In those situations all we can do is to expend as much mental effort as time affords.

So especially for the important decisions we need to make in our lives, we cannot afford to be cognitive misers. It is unfortunate that the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until our mid-twenties. By this time we have had the opportunity to make serious erroneous decisions. But this is all the more reason to think for as long and as much as possible so that we are making maximum use of whatever prefrontal cortex we have.

We also need to avoid being cognitive misers as citizens. Considering the problems the U.S. Government is having, it appears that the country is filled with cognitive misers. People blame the government, but it is the people who elect the government.

The idea that people do not vote in their own interests is not new. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to support this view. Income equality has grown for the past thirty years. How can this be possible if voters are voting in their own interests? How can 1% of the population garner so much of the wealth? Mitt Romney called 47% of the U.S. Population deadbeats, or something of the sort. He also was against in supporting funds for college educations, in spite of the fact that the G.I. Bill was largely responsible the subsequent economic growth of the country. Romney’s argument was that if parents had the funds to send their children to college, that was their privilege, otherwise students needed to fund for themselves. Now how does this square with the ideal of equality? Yet 48% of the vote went to this man. How can this be?

This answer is that there is an epidemic of cognitive misers. Ideologies provide a handy vehicle for avoiding thinking. The ideologies, beliefs, hold the answer. There is no need to think. Contrary evidence is disregarded as being biased, being from a liberal press, for example. Now ideologies are even more pernicious when they are held by those in legislative bodies. Effective legislative bodies require negotiation and compromise, something that ideologues are not wont to do.

Beliefs need to be justified with logic and evidence. It is not a matter of believing in big government or small government, whatever those terms might mean. Regardless if someone tells me they are against, or for, big government, I regard them to be cognitive misers of the highest magnitude. Rather it is a matter of the honest examination of data and reflection that should be the means of determining what government should and should not do.

If this epidemic of cognitive miserliness continues, too many voters will be manipulated by skilled politicians and their advisors into voting against their own interests.

But by far, the worst and most dangerous ideologues are those who on the grounds of their religious beliefs, perform acts of terrorism. Religious ideologues can pervert religious beliefs into acts that are contrary to their religions. This is certainly the worst consequence of cognitive miserliness.


Stanovich, K.E. (2011). Rationality & the Reflective Mind. New York: The Oxford University Press..

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. 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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