A Brain Trick to Make You More Creative, Intuitive, and Happy
How to make ‘cognitive ease’ work for you
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 something ‘good’ or something ‘bad.’” The results were spectacular: The words that were presented more frequently were rated much more favorably than the words that had been shown only once or twice. The finding has been confirmed in many experiments, using Chinese ideographs, faces, and randomly shaped polygons.
The mere exposure effect does not depend on the conscious experience of familiarity. In fact, the effect does not depend on consciousness at all: It occurs even when the repeated words or pictures are shown so quickly that the observers never become aware of having seen them. They still end up liking the words or pictures that were presented more frequently.
A sense of familiarity creates a feeling of comfort, even mild affection. It’s also critical for activating associative memory — that is, the brain’s ability to create and remember relationships between multiple items. Associative memory is what allows you to see the words “cake,” “Swiss,” and “cottage,” and conclude that they have “cheese” in common.
Associative memory is also the essence of creativity.
The (creative) power of association
Around 1960, a young psychologist named Sarnoff Mednick hypothesized that creativity is, essentially, a turbo-charged expression of associative memory. To probe his theory, Mednick made up a test, called the Remote Association Test (RAT), which is still often used in studies of creativity. The RAT presents subjects with a triad of words — like cake, Swiss, and cottage — then asks the subject to figure out how the three words are linked.
Several teams of German psychologists that have studied the RAT in recent years have come up with remarkable discoveries about cognitive ease. One of the teams raised two questions: Can people feel that a triad of words has a solution before they know what the solution is? How does mood influence performance in this task? To find out, they first made some of their subjects happy and others sad, by asking them to think for several minutes about happy or sad episodes in their lives. Then they presented these subjects with a series of triads, half of them linked (such as our cheese puzzle) and half unlinked (such as dream, ball, book), and instructed them to press one of two keys very quickly to indicate their guess about whether the triad was linked. The time allowed for this guess, two seconds, was much too short for the actual solution to come to anyone’s mind.
The results were astonishing. First of all, people’s guesses turned out to be much more accurate than they would be by chance. A sense of cognitive ease is apparently generated by a very faint signal from the associative machine, which “knows” that the three words are coherent (share an association) long before the association is retrieved. The role of cognitive ease in the judgment was confirmed experimentally by another German team: Manipulations that increase cognitive ease (priming, a clear font, pre-exposing words) all increase the tendency to see the words as linked.
Another remarkable discovery was the powerful effect of mood on this intuitive performance. The experimenters computed an “intuition index” to measure accuracy. They found that putting the participants in a good mood before the test by having them think happy thoughts more than doubled accuracy. An even more striking result is that unhappy subjects were completely incapable of performing the intuitive task accurately; their guesses were no better than random.
The connection makes biological sense. A good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down. A bad mood indicates that things are not going very well, there may be a threat, and vigilance is required. Cognitive ease is both a cause and a consequence of a pleasant feeling.
Cognitive ease and the power of persuasion
Cognitive ease also aids trust.
Which brings us back to our original exercise: How to craft a persuasive message. The general principle is that anything you can do to reduce your audience’s cognitive strain will work in your favor. If you can, maximize legibility by increasing the visual contrast between the character font and background. if your message is to be printed, use high-quality paper to maximize the contrast between characters and their background. If you use color, you are more likely to be believed if your text is printed in bright blue or red than in middling shades of green, yellow, or pale blue.
If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. Contrary to common belief, studies have shown that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence. In addition to making your message simple, try to make it memorable. Put your ideas in verse if you can; they will be more likely to be taken as truth.
The easier your message is to read, understand, and remember, the more convincing it will be.
Excerpts from “Cognitive Ease” from THINKING, FAST AND SLOW by Daniel Kahneman. Copyright ©️ 2011 by Daniel Kahneman. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.