The New Self-Help

A Brain Trick to Make You More Creative, Intuitive, and Happy

How to make ‘cognitive ease’ work for you

Daniel Kahneman
Published in
5 min readSep 2, 2020
Book jacket cover for Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

Suppose you must write a message that you want the recipients to believe. Of course, your message will be true. But that’s not necessarily enough for people to believe that it is true. In a situation like this one, it would be totally reasonable to use cognitive ease in your favor.

Cognitive ease refers, quite simply, to the degree of mental effort required for a given task. Your brain registers “easy” as a sign that things are going well — no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort. Cognitive ease facilitates the brain’s “fast,” intuitive system for processing information, which aids in creative thinking, accurate intuition, and even a pleasant mood. Understanding how it works can help you leverage its effects — in others, and in yourself.

Repetition, familiarity, and good feelings

One way to induce cognitive ease is to create a sense of familiarity through repetition. The famed psychologist Robert Zajonc called it the “mere exposure effect.” A demonstration to test this effect, conducted in the student newspapers of the University of Michigan and of Michigan State University, is one of my favorite experiments of all time

For a period of some weeks, an ad-like box appeared on the front page of the paper, which contained one of the following Turkish (or Turkish-sounding) words: kadirga, saricik, biwonjni, nansoma, and iktitaf. The frequency with which the words were repeated varied: One of the words was shown only once; the others appeared on two, five, 10, or 25 separate occasions. (The words that were presented most often in one of the university papers were the least frequent in the other.) No explanation was offered, and readers’ queries were answered by the statement that “the purchaser of the display wished for anonymity.”

When the mysterious series of ads ended, the investigators sent questionnaires to the university communities, asking for impressions of whether each of the words “means…