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Photo by Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters


A love for thinking brings benefits way beyond school and work

Photo by Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

by Josephine Zerna + BIO





Having a passion for mental effort – a trait that’s distinct from being intelligent – has some wide-ranging upsides

What is it that draws you to an article about a topic like psychology? Why not just mindlessly scroll through the feeds on your phone instead, or stare out the window? Perhaps it’s because you enjoy cognitive effort – which means you would likely score high on a trait called ‘need for cognition’.

In everyday life, people can often choose how hard they want to flex their mental muscles. You might make that choice without even knowing what, exactly, motivates it. If you want to watch some Netflix after work, you could opt for a lighthearted sitcom – or you could pick a mystery with several timelines. If it’s game night, you might vote for playing Twister, or instead for a complex strategy game like Twilight Imperium. And if you’re taking a trip somewhere, you might stick to the basic level of planning needed to get you there, or you might think it through further, researching interesting stops and favourable routes, and mapping out a more detailed plan. All of these involve choices between different degrees of cognitive effort, and you might vary from hour to hour in terms of how much effort you are motivated to put in.

Still, some people tend to be more inclined toward cognitive effort overall than others are. Need for cognition is a way of describing this more stable difference between people. You can think of it as a spectrum, ranging from someone who usually does the bare minimum of thinking needed to get through life to someone who finds flexing their mental muscles as delightful as a bodybuilder finds flexing their physical muscles.

Like many other psychological traits, need for cognition can be assessed with a questionnaire, which asks a person to rate how much they agree or disagree with statements about thinking – such as ‘I would prefer complex to simple problems’, or ‘I only think as hard as I have to’ – using a nine-point scale. In addition to pondering how your responses to such statements would compare with other people’s, you might also recognise yourself in the way that need for cognition is related to leisure activities. People who enjoy cognitive effort are more likely to seek it out in their free time, such as by watching educational content or discussing societal issues, irrespective of how high their cognitive abilities are.

People with higher need for cognition describe themselves as less depressed, less burnt out, and more confident

People who relish mental challenges are not necessarily more intelligent – although some research has found that, on average, they score higher on fluid intelligence, the ability to solve problems and think logically. What’s key is that they enjoy the journey of learning and problem-solving. And research indicates that this enjoyment can actually help compensate for when someone has lower abilities in school, because it leads to a deeper understanding than superficial or rote learning would. So, need for cognition is quite an obvious subject of interest in the context of education. But we are only beginning to understand its effects in other areas of life.

Should we expect need for cognition to have a broader relationship with wellbeing – with desirable states such as emotional stability, a fulfilling work life, reliable social connections, good physical health and a strong sense of self? While it makes intuitive sense that people who enjoy effortful thinking would fare better in school, it’s less clear that the benefits will translate outside of the classroom, where a tendency to think a lot might not be rewarded as much.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I surveyed the published findings to date on need for cognition and its relation to every facet of wellbeing that we could find. We combined a qualitative review of the findings with several meta-analyses (analysing the data from all papers on the same topic). We ended up with a number of encouraging signs for those who enjoy cognitive effort – but also some cautionary tales.

Let’s start with the positive: people who seek out and enjoy cognitive challenges feel better, on average, in many ways. One might expect them to be prone to rumination and worry; after all, there is a similar, widespread misconception that intelligent people are more likely to be depressed. But need for cognition is strongly linked to goal-directedness. So, while many people tend to get stuck in repetitive and often negative mental loops, people with higher need for cognition are more likely to direct their thoughts towards problem-solving, reflecting on their experiences in a healthier manner. This tendency seems to result in a more stable sense of self, as well as lower anxiety in various settings. People with higher need for cognition also tend to describe themselves as less depressed, less burnt out, and more confident in social interactions (while particularly valuing the company of other passionate thinkers).

How might someone with high need for cognition reap these benefits? We can imagine that when a person who is high on this trait faces a very demanding, time-sensitive task, they might be especially motivated to think through ways to lower their stress levels, such as prioritising, figuring out a way to delegate work, or reappraising the situation as an opportunity for growth. Or, during a challenging phase in a romantic relationship, a person with higher need for cognition might be more likely to work on improving their communication skills, taking their partner’s perspective, or reminding themselves that relationships require ongoing investment. In both examples, goal-orientation initiates active forms of coping, which in turn increases the likelihood of positive outcomes.

The research tells us that the thinking styles of people with high need for cognition are geared towards problem-solving – but why? Are problem-solving skills just a byproduct of the tendency to engage in effortful thinking? Or do these individuals enjoy effortful thinking because it helps them solve problems? The truth is likely a combination of both. If you’ve experienced situations in which thinking rationally helped you to solve a problem, then you’ll be more likely to do it in the future. Over time, you will come to associate cognitive effort with helpful solutions. And, just as with physical muscles, flexing your mental muscles might become easier and more joyful each time you do it.

Of course, not all challenges are equally amenable to being solved through effortful thinking. And this is where a high need for cognition might have its limitations.

One example is the endeavour to stay (or become) physically healthy. The wellbeing of the body is just as important as the wellbeing of the mind, but it requires translating thought into physical action. Knowing the nutritional benefits of various foods does nothing for your health if you don’t prepare your meals accordingly. Being aware that your posture is giving you neck pain does nothing for your health if you don’t correct it when you notice it. And the list goes on.

Someone who enjoys thinking might become quite confident in their ability to address the problem – but might not actually do anything

People who enjoy thinking may be prone to a false sense of security. Studies find that higher need for cognition is associated with higher self-efficacy, or the belief that you can successfully complete tasks. If you are one of the passionate thinkers, then you are more likely to believe in your success, perhaps because your mind is a web of past experiences, thought experiments and possible solutions. Self-efficacy ultimately stems from one’s performance in the past – a point that might sound trivial, but it’s important. It means that if a task is new to you, and your past experience actually isn’t so relevant, then your belief that you can successfully complete the task might be misguided.

For most areas of life, a belief in your own abilities is very good for wellbeing. But research shows that when people who enjoy thinking are faced with novel tasks, their confidence in their own success might not be justified, and they sometimes end up making harmful decisions. For instance, in a study with smokers, those who enjoyed thinking were more confident about their ability to quit smoking, but smoked just as frequently and had just as many quit attempts as smokers with low need for cognition. And when women were given informational materials about breast-cancer screenings, those who enjoyed thinking felt more knowledgeable afterwards, but had lower intentions to visit their doctor, discuss it with a friend, or seek more information. In another study, college students with higher need for cognition were more aware of the consequences of heavy alcohol consumption, but ended up drinking more heavily than others did.

In all of these examples, researchers wanted to encourage the study participants to behave more healthily. But the findings suggest that if someone doesn’t especially enjoy thinking, certain health interventions might actually work better on them, perhaps because they are more likely to take what they’re given and translate that into action. Someone who does enjoy thinking might absorb the knowledge and even become quite confident in their ability to address the problem – but might not actually do anything.

That being said, the sum of the evidence tells us that need for cognition is, overall, a very positive trait to have. The science clearly shows that if you don’t shy away from effortful thinking, you are likely more motivated to acquire knowledge, ponder problems, and find solutions, and to reach higher levels of wellbeing in many facets of life. As of now, we don’t know whether one’s level of need for cognition can be increased, though there is some evidence that self-control and the preference for cognitive effort might enhance each other over time. It’s easier to control yourself if you can think of strategies to help you do so, and it’s easier to think of strategies if you have the self-control to invest effort in thinking.

The few scenarios in which need for cognition doesn’t seem to translate to benefits are those where people fail to turn knowledge into action. So, if you are the sort of person who is strongly drawn to effortful thinking, remember that the need to take action is often just as critical. When facing a challenge, you might ask yourself: can I overcome this challenge by thinking? If you can, great; think elaborately, think reflectively, and think often. But if action and external support are required, then take action, and accept help. Your body and mind will thank you.





18 June 2024