I was reading Danny K's recent book for fun (Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011), and he suggests briefly that some people's reliance on their intuitions (i.e., "System 1") might sometimes indicate a sort of aversion to cognitive effort (i.e., "System 2").

For example, if you give a participant "Joe" a tricky problem that has an intuitive but false answer, Joe might not think too hard about the question, so he'll just give his (false) intuition. In this case, Joe does not attempt elaborative processing or sustained cognitive effort (i.e., engaging System 2) because he has learned that this can be unpleasant and/or tiring. Thus he relies on his intuition and gets the question wrong.

While there are probably many alternative explanations for Joe's behavior, it seems that aversion to mental effort could be one. Is there any research exploring this idea? Or any research that frames it in another way (e.g., something to do with affective forecasting, learning, self-regulation)? Or am I totally making this up?

  • $\begingroup$ This is not aversion but lack of training. $\endgroup$
    – Andrewski
    Jul 1, 2015 at 15:10

4 Answers 4


Yes, if I understood your question correctly, there is a great deal of research in Social Psychology about humans being "cognitive misers". In layman's terms, it means that humans find mental effort aversive and hence tend to rely on heuristics, categories or mental shortcuts while making judgements or while making decisions.

The theory comes within the domain of Social Cognition, and it was first introduced by social psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor. It challenges the assumption in traditional economics that holds consumers as rational decision makers, and as a consequence this theory has been influential in behavioral economics. Kahneman and Tversky's work on documenting human biases can be understood simply as an extension of human's inherent limitations in cognitive processing.

This theory is very useful in political science, where voter decisions are studied. Furthermore, it also explains social phenomenon such as stereotyping.


Fiske, S.T., & Taylor, S.E. (1991). Social Cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0070211914.

Tversky, A.; Kahneman, D. (1974). "Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases". Science 185 (4157): 1124–1131. doi:10.1126/science.185.4157.1124. PMID 17835457.

Macrae, C. N., Milne, A. B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (1994). Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 37–47. doi:10.1037/0022- 3514.66.1.37


From what I remember from this field, there's a long-standing debate on whether heuristics are "irrational"/"suboptimal" between D. Kahneman and G. Gigerenzer. The Gigerenzer's point of view has been well put in the wiki:

Gigerenzer argues that heuristics are not irrational or always second-best to optimization, as the accuracy-effort trade-off view assumes, in which heuristics are seen as short-cuts that trade less effort for less accuracy. In contrast, his and associated researchers' studies have identified situations in which "less is more", that is, where heuristics make more accurate decisions with less effort. This contradicts the traditional view that more information is always better or at least can never hurt if it is free. Less-is-more effects have been shown experimentally, analytically, and by computer simulations

According to this view, people are not "cognitive misers" - they are just smart. See this chapter, for some introduction (you can find it online through Google Scholar):

Gigerenzer, G. (2004). Fast and Frugal Heuristics: The Tools of Bounded Rationality. In Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making (pp. 62–88). doi:10.1002/9780470752937.ch4

PS. I haven't followed the debate for some time, so maybe now Kahneman and Gigerenzer have changed their view or came to some agreement.


There are many answers to this question, because this is an essential research topic of any dual process model (of which there are quit a lot). Most of them posit in some way that whether people rely on "System 1" or "System 2" (or whatever they are called in the respective flavor of the model) is some combination of motivation (Is person X motivated to think hard in situation Y?) and ability (Can Person X think hard in situation Y?).

To add to the other great answers, a few more examples:

From an interindividual differences perspective, there is the concept of Need for Cognition and an accompanying scale that measures "the tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking" (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982, p. 116). People who are low in need for cognition are, for example, more likely to process persuasive messages in a heuristic way, also are more likely to fall prey to (at least some) cognitive biases such as halo effects or anchoring, and they stereotype more strongly (Petty et al., 2009).

Also stemming from persuasion research, there is the concept of involvement. In a nutshell, if people don't care so much about a topic (low motivation to think hard), they will be swayed more easily by heuristic cues (Petty & Cacioppo, 1984).

There is also the concept of Ego Depletion, which holds self-regulatory capacity ("willpower") is a limited resource (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998). According to this model, hard thinking requires self-control. If your self-regulatory capacity has been depleted (because of other difficult tasks, such as suppressing emotions or resisting temptations), you will be less likely to perform well in such tasks.

More recent research suggests that people have different beliefs about willpower and whether the latter phenomenon will occur: Some people more strongly belief that willpower can be drained. It's those people who will suffer more from taxing tasks (Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010).

Finally (for this answer), there is a host of situational and dispositional variables that will affect whether people are able to engage in hard thinking. For example, people with low working memory capacity may be more susceptible to impulsive influences on their behavior. The same occurs for people who are put under cognitive load, are intoxicated, or under time pressure (for a review, see Hofmann & Strack, 2009).


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252–1265. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.74.5.1252

Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116–131.

Hofmann, W., Friese, M., & Strack, F. (2009). Impulse and self-control from a dual-systems perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 162–176. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01116.x

Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion-Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797610384745

Petty, R.E., Briñol, P., Loersch, C.; McCaslin, M.J. (2009). "Chapter 21. The Need for Cognition". In Leary, Mark R. & Hoyle, Rick H. Handbook of Individual Differences in Social behavior (pp. 318–329). New York: Guildford.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1984). The effects of involvement on responses to argument quantity and quality: Central and peripheral routes to persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 69–81. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.46.1.69


In addition to @UmerVakil's great answer that general preference for system 1 thinking is often associated with mental effort minimization, I'd like to add that the more modern view is that people switch back and forth (sometimes called "motivated tactician") for a variety of possible reasons, so the idea that people might learn to be cognitively "lazy" is not really the prevailing view. Additionally, I think that Kahneman's comment may be more focused on reasons for individual differences in thinking styles rather than general preference.

System 1 and 2 are part of dual process theory, which is actually a conglomerate of subtly different theories with some commonalities (a great review here). As each individual theory has its own approach and measurement tools, this question is probably far too broad to adequately cover here, but a couple of interesting examples might suffice.

Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory (CEST) is one example of a dual-process theory where significant research has been done on individual differences in thinking styles:

Indeed, reliable individual differences in preference for thinking styles consistently emerge from studies that use these assessments. What's more, individual differences in preference for a particular thinking style, as assessed by the REI, has been associated with a number of meaningful life outcomes. A preference for rational thought shows a number of beneficial associations. Increased academic achievement (GRE scores and grade-point average), self-esteem, openness to experience, and conscientiousness and decreased levels of depression and state-trait anxiety have all been associated with Need for Cognition. Higher levels of Faith in Intuition have more mixed results. Creativity, spontaneity, emotional expression, agreeableness, extroversion, and positive interpersonal relationships have all been associated with a preference for experiential processing. However, it has also been linked with authoritarianism, superstitious beliefs, and stereotypical thinking. Sex and age differences in thinking styles have also been found.

As you asked about a learning component to such preferences, I should mention that studies that compare these particular thinking styles typically prompt subjects to switch back and forth as needed by the experiment by ... asking them. The simplicity of this method belies a learning component. A few years ago, a couple of highly publicized studies demonstrated how even more subtle prompting (using words, imagery,and even different fonts!) can have an effect on system 1 and 2 thinking preferences - the researchers were able to temporarily affect religious belief by prompting analytical thinking. It is theorized that perhaps culture plays an important role in thinking style preference: Religious people may prefer a heuristic thinking style that is more socially acceptable (less likely to result in conflict), while disbelievers have a preference for critical thinking and are less concerned with social acceptance. Establishing cause-and-effect is a challenge, so these types of studies are important in demonstrating the role of prompting in the environment in affecting thinking preference.

  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting. I think your post perhaps supports my impression that Kahneman's theory is lacking some refinement. But I still have to finish reading it, so we'll see! $\endgroup$
    – mrt
    Jul 2, 2015 at 4:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.