Now before you start reading this article, I just want to promise you it is not a political piece. I am only using an event in recent British politics to highlight a way of thinking called cognitive ease.
Last December, the Conservative Party won the General Election with a huge majority not seen since WWII. This is despite the fact that many voters disagreed with their policies and preferred the Labour manifesto. So what went wrong? Cognitive ease, dear readers. Cognitive ease.
I say again, don’t worry, this isn’t a political article. It’s the easiest way I can tell you about this particular way of thinking. Let me explain. Going into the election the Conservatives had a very brief and succinct message. It was: ‘Get Brexit Done’
On the other hand, the Labour party was wishy-washy about where they stood on Brexit. Their leader told the UK he would be an ‘honest broker of the people’ (whatever that meant, no one really knew). He wouldn’t take sides and the Labour party message was one of ‘we’ll go with want the people want’, or something like that. I don’t recall. And that’s the problem.
The Conservatives won a massive majority. After the dust had settled, many people cited the clear message from the Tories about Brexit. It was easy to understand they said. They knew what it meant. It was catchy, concise, and simple to remember. It chimed well with the public. Audiences took to it.
On the other hand, no one understood what Labour was trying to say.
The Conservatives won because they took advantage of cognitive ease. So what exactly is it?
What Is Cognitive Ease and How It Works
Put simply, cognitive ease is the ease in which our brains process information and this then has a direct impact on how we then view that information. In other words, if something is easy to understand, like ‘Get Brexit Done’, we immediately understand it and we view it in a positive way.
Not only that, but the easier a thing is to process and understand, the more time and effort we’ll invest in it. Conversely, when something becomes harder to understand, and we need to take more of a mental effort, this leads to a negative view. In fact, we can become suspicious, distrustful and lose confidence.
The problem is that not everything in life is easy to understand. If it was, Einstein would never have come up with the theory of relativity. So why are we drawn to cognitive ease?
It’s because we are most likely to believe what is familiar and what is easy. Going back to the ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan again, even when members of the opposition told the British public that Brexit absolutely would not ‘be done’ in a matter of months (which was what Boris Johnson had been saying) because it would take years to negotiate the trade deals, we all ignored them and voted him in.
Familiarity Breeds Cognitive Ease
So the phrase became so familiar that in the end, it was the truth. Studies show that if something is repeated enough times, we believe it. There’s an old saying: ‘a lie travels around the world several times before the truth is putting its shoes on‘.
This repeating something until we are familiar with it is the mere-exposure effect. Many people use this to their advantage, including politicians. The purpose of repeating a certain phrase is that it gives us a sense of cognitive ease. Our brains don’t have to work that hard because we’ve heard it before, therefore, it must be true.
Simplicity Is Key
Again I’m using the Brexit phrase because it is so simple it was so effective. When something is simple, it requires less processing and that gives us cognitive ease.
For example, if I give you two options, Option A is very simple to understand and Option B is extremely difficult, then I ask you to choose which option you prefer, statistically, you are more likely to say Option A.
This is because you find option A easier to understand and we like things we understand. We find them easier to process. They take less mental strain.
Cognitive Ease Validates Our Existing Beliefs
But there’s another reason why cognitive ease is such a pervasive thought behaviour and that is the information we think is true and right and that we already understand makes us feel better.
Information that is consistent with what we already believe validates our opinions. We are more likely to accept information that already fits in with our belief systems, with our values. It’s like big green ticks along all our confidence boxes.
Conversely, information that is inconsistent with what we believe is held up to much greater scrutiny. We don’t easily accept it as we do information we already believe in. In fact, the opposite is true.
We instantly distrust it, we look at the source of the information, and we dislike the characters that are talking about the information. We find reasons to dismiss the information.
This is because it is taking us much greater cognitive processes to dissect the information than the simple or familiar stuff.
The problem is that cognitive ease is a cognitive bias and a shortcut to processing the world around us. As with all cognitive biases, they can distort our thinking. So how do we stop falling into the trap of cognitive ease thinking?
How to Avoid Cognitive Ease Thinking
- Accept different views
- Don’t believe because something is simple, it is true
- Don’t believe because you’ve heard it before, it is true
- Listen to as many different people as you can
- Don’t get trapped in an echo chamber
- Be wary of the feel-good response that cognitive ease thinking gives you
- Start accepting that feeling uncomfortable is a sign you are thinking properly
It’s hard to escape the trap of cognitive ease. When we feel validated, we get a rush of confidence and our mood is lifted and we are happy. But it’s important to realise that some factions of society use cognitive ease as a way of fooling the public. So be on your guard. Is something too simple? Do you keep hearing or seeing it? It could be cognitive ease.
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