Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cognitive Fluency

It's all the rage among serious psychologists. They call it "cognitive fluency" and they use it to refer to the fact that the human mind consistently expresses a preference for simple over complex theories and explanations. Link here.

As I have been at pains to point out, high concept trumps nuance; a clear policy formulation is better than a conceptual muddle.

In fact, this is not a very new idea. It dates at least to the Middle Ages where it is called: Occam's razor. More about that later.

The irony here is that the term cognitive fluency is actually cognitively disfluent. So, psychologists invented a term that barely expresses their own concept. Cognitive fluency is anything but self-evident, simple, and cognitively fluent. As for this invented word: disfluency... scientists would do better to leave such creative gestures to James Joyce.

If we were to seek out the opposite of Occam's razor we might come up with something like: Occam's beard. That would at least be somewhat amusing.

Anyway, high concept and cognitive fluency adhere in more concrete images, rather than in high-toned abstraction.

High concept means that you can tell your story in single sentence. If you cannot, your screenplay will probably be incoherent and disorganized, difficult for any audience to grasp. It will also be less likely to attract and engage the spectator.

In politics high concept refers to statements of policy. A leader's policies should be expressed clearly and concisely. Otherwise how will the people charged with implementing them know what to do.

The concept of cognitive fluency suggests in addition that staff will find clearly expressed concepts more attractive and engaging, more worthy of their commitment.

Simple is more attractive than complex.

We must mention that our culture often associates simplicity with ignorance. When you accuse someone of being a simpleton or simple-minded you are not offering him a compliment.

We have been conditioned to believe that people whose opinions are more nuanced, more complex, more multi-faceted are smarter than those who traffic in clear and intelligible thought.

If I can understand it, we seem to believe, how smart can it be?

In recent years we have made something of a fetish out of nuance. Especially when it came to defending political candidates who could not think clearly or could not make up their minds or who tried to straddle too many competing opinions at once. John Kerry and Barack Obama were widely proclaimed to be geniuses because they engaged in cognitive disfluency and low concept.

Of course, the mere fact that our brains are naturally drawn to clear and simple thoughts does not mean that all simple policies are correct. Some are and some are not.

Yet, when a policy is expressed clearly, like "containment:" the famous one-word policy that defined America's relations toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, we can debate it openly and honestly without being accused of not having understood it.

Despite what we all believe, then, people who over-complicate things are not necessarily more intelligent. They may be less experienced; they may not have worked hard enough; they may be more confused; or they may be hiding their true opinions.

People who can take a complicated issue and express it clearly in simple terms might be functioning at a higher cognitive level.

As I mentioned above, cognitive fluency sounds an awful lot like Occam's razor. If so, it dates to the 14th century, and we owe it to the Franciscan scholar, William of Occam. Link to the Wikpedia summary here.

Why the image of the razor? One scholar explained: "The term razor refers to the act of shaving away unnecessary assumptions to get to the simplest explanations."

As I said, this concept is easier to grasp than the notion of cognitive fluency.

Obviously, Occam did not call it his razor. His own statement of the concept was: "Plurality ought never to be posited without necessity."

He means that we should never offer a complicated explanation when we have a simple one at hand.

For a psychological example, imagine that a person is feeling despair for having lost his job. Losing a job is a perfectly adequate explanation for his despair. You do not need to complicate the question uselessly by introducing childhood antecedents or the Oedipus complex.

For those who like such things-- count me among them-- Thomas Aquinas offered an earlier version of the concept. In his words: "If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments when one suffices."

Today's psychologists are closer to this concept than you might expect. They assert that cognitive fluency is adaptive behavior because when we are walking alone in the woods and come across a familiar object we feel more attracted to it and happier to have seen it. When we come across a strange object, we are not only more suspicious, but we also become more confused. Our mind goes into overdrive trying to figure out whether the strange object is friend or foe.

Which means that cognitive fluency is consonant with nature's way of functioning. And I will happily concur that the human brain, whose functioning forms the basis for recent psychological research, is a part of nature.

Of course, given the proclivities of thinkers like Aquinas and Occam, you might well guess-- I would-- that they are thinking that nature was created by God and that God, whatever you think of Him or him, is not confused.


Rob De Witt said...

Thomas Aquinas and William of Occam are the perfect citations in addressing this gibberish.

A character in Nevil Shute's Trustee From the Toolroom opined "An engineer is somebody who can do for six shillings what any fool can do for a sovereign." Even as recently as the '70s, computer guys were fond of the acronym K.I.S.S. - which the culture has sadly ignored in the interim.

Anonymous said...

>>If we were to seek out the opposite of Occam's razor we might come up with something like: Occam's beard.<<

Your post was like a cool drink in a parched desert of hot nonsense.

In the course of my work as an engineer, I actually coined the phrase for the opposite of Occam's Razor:

Smacco's Butterknife.

Feel free to use it. (The phrase, not Smacco's Butterknife; it is a dark and dull thing; all too common, as you obviously know.)

A simple, well-reasoned, deduction excluding unnecessary complexity is so rare that I make a living providing such.


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