A bat and a ball cost 1.10 euros in total. If the bat costs 1 euro more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
This was one of the questions that psychologists from the National Center for Scientific Research in France asked 248 university students. Without thinking much about it, 79% said that the bat cost 1 euro and the ball 10 cents.
The answer is wrong. In reality, the ball costs 5 cents and the bat 1.05 euros. However, most people get it wrong because they are victims of cognitive laziness.
What is cognitive laziness?
Thinking is difficult. Our brain is a kind of pattern recognition machine. That’s why we are happy when things fit into the mindsets we already have, and when they don’t, we still try to fit them into our pre-established ways of thinking.
We seldom take the necessary time or allocate sufficient mental energy to construct new patterns that can explain events and phenomena that do not fit our vision of the world.
The most common is that we ignore the logic and apply a “lazy” heuristic. Heuristics are strategies that we use to speed up the processing of information and find an appropriate response. They are mental paths to quickly reach solutions or explanations.
Obviously, heuristics save us an enormous amount of mental energy. But if we trust them too much, without modifying them, we can fall into a state of mental stagnation, which we know as “cognitive laziness”. This cognitive laziness becomes even more acute when we are faced with complex situations that do not have an obvious or simple answer.
Cognitive laziness, grave of creativity
Have you ever seen the wheels of a train up close? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip to prevent them from coming off the rails. However, originally the wheels of the trains did not have that design, that safety measure was applied to the rails, according to the creative expert Michael Michalko.
At the beginning of the railway, the problem was posed in the following terms: How can be made safer tracks for trains? As a result, hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel edge, with the consequent expense that this entailed. The insight came when engineers reframed the problem: How can wheels be made to make train tracks safer?
The truth is that, once we see things from one perspective, we close the door to other possibilities and focus on developing a unique line of thought. We explore in one direction only. That is why we only come up with certain types of ideas and others do not even cross our mind. To find other creative options we need to broaden our vision.
In fact, one of the forms cognitive laziness takes is by accepting our impressions about problems, conflicts, or concerns. Once we establish a starting point, we do not look for other ways to understand reality.
However, as with our first impression of a person, the initial perspective on problems and situations tends to be narrow and superficial. We do not see beyond what we expect to see based on our experiences and way of thinking. That means that cognitive laziness makes us avoid possible solutions and that we close the door to creativity.
Those who do not think are easier to deceive
Cognitive laziness not only works against creativity, it can also make us more suggestible and manipulable. The tendency to follow existing mental patterns leads us to accept certain beliefs or information without questioning them.
In 2019, a group of researchers at Yale University asked 3,446 people to rate the accuracy of a series of news headlines posted via Facebook. The results were amazing.
They found that we are not actually much more likely to believe fake news when they align with our worldview, but rather that it is cognitive laziness. Self-deception or motivated reasoning are only one part of the explanation for the phenomenon of fake news, the other is that we behave like cognitive misers.
These researchers found that people who have a more analytical thinking have a sharper ability to separate the truth from the lie, even if the content of the fake news conforms to their conceptions and perception of the world.
This means that, instead of critically evaluating the information we consume, we resort to other heuristics, such as the credibility of the source, the status of the author or familiarity with certain information, which prevents us from determining its degree of precision and makes us people more prone to believe in falsehoods or stereotypes.
Reversible thinking as an antidote to cognitive laziness
We all have a limited ability to process information, so we take mental shortcuts whenever we can. There is no shame about it. Stereotypes are an example of such mental shortcuts. It is about a simplification of complex situations that helps us to face them with a simple model in which we fit the wealth of people and the world. The good news is that being aware that we all suffer from cognitive laziness helps us combat it.
To do this, we must start from the fact that not everything always fits into our mental patterns. In fact, it is good that things do not fit because that discrepancy is what allows us to open our minds and expand our worldview.
When we are faced with a fact, phenomenon or idea that deviates from our way of thinking, we have two options: try to fit it in any way or accept that our mental patterns are not enough to explain what is happening or seek a solution.
Reversible thinking, understood as the ability to reason about things in different directions, is the best antidote to cognitive laziness. To apply it we need to develop the ability to see things from our usual perspective, but also from the opposite one. In this way we are able to encompass the opposites and the intermediate options. In practice, we need to contemplate a possibility, but also its opposite.
It is important to remember that to fall into cognitive laziness all we need is a small signal that tells us that we are right or that reaffirms our thinking. It is easier to believe than to think. However, reversible thinking encourages us to pay attention in the opposite direction and take note of those clues that indicate that we could be wrong, signals that indicate that there could be cracks in our heuristics and mental patterns.
So we need to put aside the judgments, reinterpret the facts, accept them and make the changes that are necessary to expand our conceptions and ways of thinking. That will help us develop a richer perspective on the world and keep an open mind.
Pennycook, G. Rand, D. G. (2019) Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning. Cognition; 188: 39-50.
De Neys, W. et. Al. (2013) Bats, balls, and substitution sensitivity: cognitive misers are no happy fools. Psychon Bull Rev; 20(2):269-73.