Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More Cognitive Fluency

Let's call this a follow-up post to my original post on cognitive fluency. Link here.

As I mentioned before, the only real problem with the concept of cognitive fluency is that it is not, in itself, cognitively fluent.

If cognitive fluency refers to the virtue of conceptual simplicity over complexity, to the value of a concept you can grasp easily without having to labor over it, then it should be renamed. There is precious little about the formulation that tells you what it is.

I would caution against oversimplification here. Cognitive fluency has much in common with simplicity, but it really refers to the ability to extract the essence from a complex issue and state it clearly and directly.

The recent Massachusetts Senate race took place during a rather raucous national debate about the Obama administration's policy toward terrorists. In the midst of that debate candidate Scott Brown came up with a formula that was very high concept, and that certainly attracted voters. His formulation: we need to spend our money defeating terrorists, not hiring lawyers to defend them.

You might think that that oversimplifies a complex issue. You might even think that we are rich enough to do both.

Of course, Brown's slogan was directed against the practice of giving terrorists the best legal talent the country can offer, that is, seeing terrorism as a criminal justice issue, and that is still a sticky political issue.

Brown's statement was clear and direct, and it presented the policy choices starkly and intelligibly.

Anyway, academic psychology is awash in new studies about the virtue of conceptual simplicity over conceptual complexity. For a good summary, see this article in Psyblog. Link here. Via Simoleon Sense.

One study highlights a point that I have found to be less than self-evident. It asserts that we normally believe that people who speak clearly and directly are more intelligent than those who speak in complexities that we cannot understand.

If this is true, someone should have told French intellectuals, who, for having made a fetish of nuance and complexity,have been crowned with laurels for their surpassing intelligence.

Even today college students, young and old, will grant obeisance to a quasi-French intellectual like Slavoj Zizek, whose talent for complexity and obfuscation is seldom equaled.

But is this an exception that proves the rule, or are we seeing a form of academically-induced mental deformity? If the research is correct, then idolizing the incoherent ramblings of pseudo-philosophers must involve something other than choosing who is or is not smart.

When you are dealing with a thinker whose thought is only penetrable by a select few, you are seeing a form of self-aggrandizement. Such thinkers are trying to attract have cult followers; they are demonstrating their contempt for the hoi polloi and inviting others who share their contempt to join them.

In other words, excessive complexity is a trick designed to seduce impressionable minds. And of course, it works. If it didn't, no one would do it.

Psyblog has found many different research studies that have demonstrated the truth of cognitive fluency.

One has discovered that we are less threatened by substances with simple names less threatening than we are by substances with more complex names. Even when both names are invented.

They show that when a product label is simple and direct, easy to read and understand, the product is more likely to become a household staple.

As I have suggested, cognitive fluency creates affinities. It elicits feelings of pleasure and attraction, for a reason that is fairly easy to understand. When someone speaks to you clearly and directly, without nuance, without obfuscation, he is showing you respect, speaking to you as an equal and as a friend. Surely, this is preferable to those who obfuscate to show off their superior mental powers.


Robert Pearson said...

Synchronicity--it seems that I did a post on congnitive fluency and chess on the same day (Feb. 3) that you did your original post. And I linked the same article from

My take is that real intelligence consists of knowing when the simple (and "easy") is the most effective approach or interpretation, and when it's right to overcome that human tendency and embrace the complexity.

For example: "peace" good, "war" bad. Almost instinctively, we believe this deep in our brains--the oldest part of the brain wants to know that any physical threats to our survival are far away, where they can't hurt. The fact that going to war (against the Taliban, for instance) is the best way to ensure longer survival for more people is a complex calculation and balancing of many factors. And it is also a aspect of cognitive fluency that most people will try to impose the pattern of the last war on the next one. Apparently, only the few are able to think outside these boxes.

Whether these are likely to be the ones we elect to high office is another matter.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Very interesting post on chess... though I am much better at bridge than at chess.

It's good to see great minds thinking alike.

In some ways it is a difficult and complex calculation that leads to war against the Taliban. But after cutting through the complexities the issue turns out to be a rather simple one. Fight or surrender?

The issue of fighting the last war is certainly germane. Armies make plans. They have strategies. The great leaders are those who can adopt when things do not go according to plan.

Does this make them more cognitively fluent? It's a good question, deserving of more reflection than I can give it today.

It also happens that people sometimes invoke complexity when they are afraid to make the right decision.

Estella said...

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