When is your mind at ease? - Chapter 5

When we are conscious, several assessments take place in our brain, providing answers to important questions: Is something new happening? Are things going alright? Is there a threat? Should I redirect my attention? System 1 carries out these assessments automatically. It determines whether System 2 needs to put in more effort. ‘Cognitive ease’ is one of the variables being measured. On a scale of easy to strained, ‘easy’ means that things are going alright (no news, no threats, no redirecting of attention needed) and ‘strained’ means that a problem occurred and System 2 has some work to do. ‘Cognitive strain’ is affected by the presence of unmet demands and the current level of effort.

Processing a clearly written sentence or listening to someone when you are happy induces cognitive ease. Reading a blurry manual or when you are frustrated induces cognitive strain. The causes of strain or ease have interchangeable effects. When you are in a state of strained ease, you are probably suspicious, putting in more effort, feeling less comfortable but also less creative and intuitive. When you feel at ease, you are probably in a positive mood, satisfied, feeling comfortable and rather causal in your thinking.

What are illusions of remembering?

Thinking and memory are susceptible to illusions. Psychologist Jacoby first exemplified the memory illusion in his article ‘Becoming famous overnight’. When you are shown a list of made-up names and five minutes later you come across one of those names, you will remember where you saw it and that it is not the name of a famous person. Three days later you are presented a long list of names, including semi-famous people and new unknown names. You have to identify all the celebrities in the list. It is likely that you will identify the made-up name as a famous person. In case of very famous people, you have a mental file with extensive information. There is no information about someone whose name you heard twice. You remember seeing the name before, but there is nothing more than a feeling of familiarity. Familiarity has a quality of ‘pastness’ that suggests that there is a direct reflection of a past experience. This quality is an illusion. The made-up name looks familiar, because words you have seen earlier become easier to see again and quicker to read. Thus, seeing a word you have seen before induces cognitive ease, which results into the illusion of familiarity.

What are illusions of truth?

“Amsterdam is the capital of The Netherlands”. “You cannot drink seawater, because it is too salty”. “A duck has four legs”. After reading these statements, you instantly retrieved many related facts and quickly knew that the first two are correct and the third is incorrect. However, the statement “A duck has three legs” is more clearly incorrect. The associative machine slows the assessment of the third statement by providing the information that there are many four-legged animals. System 2 is responsible for this.

When the correct answer does not come to mind, we tend to go by the cognitive ease: we pick the answer that feels familiar and assume it is true. Extreme and new answers are likely to get rejected. System 1 produces the impression of familiarity and System 2 provides a judgment (true or not) based on that impression. If a judgment is based on an impression of cognitive strain or ease, a predictable illusion will occur. If you want people to believe a false statement, you have to frequently repeat it, because it is hard to distinguish the truth from familiarity. This is a well-known fact among marketers and authorities. It is not necessary to repeat the whole statement or idea, making people familiar with one phrase can make the whole statement appear true.

How do you write a persuasive message?

If you want to write a persuasive text, you should enlist cognitive ease and truth illusions. Even if your statement is true, you still need to convince people. In order to avoid cognitive strain, you should start with maximizing legibility. Print the text on high-quality paper to emphasize the contrast between background and characters. A text printed in bright colors is more likely to be believed. If you want to appear intelligent and credible, avoid using complex and pretentious language. Try making your statement memorable, by putting it in verse. Rhyming aphorisms are considered to be more true. If quoting a source, avoid names that are difficult to pronounce. System 2 is lazy, minimal mental effort is preferred.

Many decisions we make in our lives are guided by the impressions produced by System 1, of which the source is often unknown. Whether we believe a statement is true or not depends on feeling a sense of cognitive ease: is there a link with logic or an association with other preferences or beliefs you hold and does it come from a source you like and trust? The problem is that there could be other causes of cognitive ease, like an attractive presentation of a text. It is not easy to overcome superficial factors that evoke illusions of truth, as System 2 is lazy and usually backs the suggestions of System 1.

What happens when you experience cognitive strain?

When System 2 is engaged in effortful operations, you experience cognitive strain. Experiencing cognitive strain mobilizes System 2 to a more active mode. When students of a leading university were asked to take the Cognitive Reflection Test, half of them read it in a small font printed in a shade of gray. While the text was legible, the font caused cognitive strain. 90% of the students who read the Test in a regular font made a mistake, contrary to 35% of the students who had to deal with the small font. The latter performed better, showing that cognitive strain mobilizes System 2, which in turn rejects the suggestion by System 1.

What are the benefits of cognitive ease?

The article ‘Mind at ease puts a smile on the face’ discussed the experiment in which people were shown images of objects for a short amount of time. In some images, the objects were briefly outlined before showing the complete image, making them easier to recognize. When the images were easier to see, the participants appeared more relaxed and happy. This suggests that System 1 associates cognitive ease with positive feelings. The same goes for words that are easy to pronounce. Businesses with pronounceable names initially do better on the stock market. According to investors, stocks with fluent names are more profitable (compare ‘Emmi’ to ‘Ypsomed’).

Repetition also induces cognitive ease. More frequently displayed words are considered to mean something good as opposed to words that are shown just once or twice. Psychologist Zajonc called this link between the repetition of arbitrary stimuli and the mild affection people have for it the ‘mere exposure effect’. This effect occurs unconsciously. Even when the images are displayed so fast that the observers are not aware of them, they are still rated better. This is no surprise: System 1 reacts to impressions of things of which System 2 is unaware of. The effect of repetition on affection is according to Zajonc a biological phenomenon common to all living creatures. For surviving in a world full of dangers, we need  to respond cautiously to novel stimuli: with fear and withdrawal. Caution fades if the stimulus proved to be safe. The mere exposure effect occurs because being repeatedly exposed to the stimulus did not cause harm.

How do ease, mood and intuition relate to each other?

Psychologist Mednick came up with the Remote Association Test (RAT). He argued that creativity is associative memory that works extremely well. Read the following words: “Gouda”    “Fondue”   “Dairy”. What word is associated with them? The answer is pretty easy: “cheese”. Now read: ‘rocket’, ‘dive’ ‘light’. This answer, ‘sky’, is much harder to find. Studies prove that a sense of cognitive ease can be induced by a very weak signal from the associative memory. It ‘knows’ that the three words share an association, long before retrieving that association. Manipulations that increase cognitive ease (clear font, priming, pre-exposing images) increase the tendency to see the association between the words. Our mood also affects our intuition. Making participants happy prior to the test doubled their accuracy, while sad participants were not capable of performing accurately. Mood affects the operations of System 1: being sad makes us lose touch with our intuition.

These discoveries indicate that intuition, gullibility, creativity, good mood and increased reliance on System 1 are part of a cluster. A good mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: we become more creative and intuitive, but also more prone to logical errors and less vigilant. Just like the mere exposure effect, this process has an evolutionary explanation. Being in a good mood means things are going well, there is no threat and you can let your guard down. Cognitive ease is both a consequence and a cause of feeling happy.

The RAT tells us more about the connection between positive affect and cognitive ease. You are likely to smile when you read a coherent triad of words. Smiling and cognitive ease occur together and in turn, feeling happy leads to intuitions of coherence. Studies show that a brief emotional reaction following the display of words forms the basis of judgments of coherence.

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