Need for Cognition is one personality trait that I see relevant for behavioral research and practice. It has been developed in the 1950s by Cohen, Stotland and Wolfe. The current theory on need for cognition used today was developed by Cacioppo and Petty in 1982 and it is a development of the early theory from the 1950s. But enough with history.
Need for cognition represents “the extent to which people engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive activities”. (Source).
Being a personality trait implies that everyone has “need for cognition” and that each person scores differently on this trait. Taking a look at the extremes we will see that people with high need for cognition often engage in effortful thinking enjoying challenging tasks. Moreover, people with high need for cognition do so without any external motivation or incentives. At the other end of the continuum, people with low need for cognition try as much as possible to avoid elaborate thinking and need external motivations and incentives to engage in effortful cognitive endeavors.
To put things a bit differently, people with high need for cognition like intellectual stimulation more than people with low need for cognition. At the same time, people with high (as opposite to low) need for cognition tend to be more critical, in the sense that they may “think twice” about a certain issue.
As you may have noticed, there is a similarity between need for cognition and the dual-system theory of thinking. For more details on dual-system information processing please take a look at this post: A Bird and a Computerin the Brain (Two Systems of Thinking).
In short, people have two systems of processing information (thinking). The first one is fast, associative, effortless and is based on “rules of thumb” (heuristics). This system is the default way of thinking. The second system is slow, elaborate, computational and is based on (rational) reasoning. The second system can be activated and interacts with the first system.
Taking the dual-system perspective, it could be said that people with high need for cognition as compared with people with low need for cognition tend to use more often system 2 thinking. This is not to say that people with high need for cognition rely only or even mainly on system 2 thinking. For each and every human being system 1 is the default way of thinking and we all use it as the main information processor. People with high need for cognition simply “switch on” system 2 more often than people with low need for cognition.
The fact that people with high need for cognition “switch on” system 2 reasoning does not make them perfectly rational. As I mentioned in the post A Bird and a Computer in the Brain (Two Systems ofThinking), quite often System 2 works on the inputs provided by system 1, which makes sometimes erroneous judgments. To put this a bit differently, system 2 may use a rigorous though process, but use flawed input data, thus even if the process was “rational” the result is “irrational”. In addition, irrational outcomes are more elaborate if system 2 is used more often.
Switching on system 2 more often has both advantages and disadvantages. Even if high need for cognition doesn’t lead to perfect rationality, it is better than low need for cognition in several aspects. The following implications refer to decision making.
First, a high level of need for cognition may lead to the occurrence of false memories. False memories refer to people remembering things that never happened or remembering seeing or hearing things that the individual was never exposed to. The false memories, however, refer only to things that are related to actual memories. For example, people might falsely remember “a chair” if they have been exposed to other related objects such as other pieces of furniture (table). False memories (usually) do not occur with regard to unrelated items such as “pigs” in the furniture case.
Second, people with high need for cognition as opposed to people with low need for cognition are less affected by the halo effect. This is not to say that people with high need for cognition are immune to the halo effect, but rather that they are affected less by it when compared with people who have a low need for cognition.
Third, people with high need for cognition compared with people with low need for cognition are less affected by anchoring effects. Again, this is not to say that people with high need for cognition are immune to anchoring effects, but rather that they are affected less by anchors.
Fourth, need for cognition influences the effect of priming. However, in the case of primes need for cognition can lead to both a diminished and an exaggerated effect of priming. When the priming is subtle, high need for cognition (as opposed to low need for cognition) leads to an exaggerated effect of the prime. This is due to the fact that when engaging in more elaborate thinking the subtle prime has more opportunities to influence the thought process. When the prime is obvious, however, a high level of need for cognition (as opposed to a low level) leads to a diminished effect of priming because people may correct their judgments being aware of the prime.
Fifth, need for cognition influences the effect of stereotyping. People with high need for cognition are affected less by stereotypes as compared with people with low need for cognition. Again, they are not immune, but rather influenced less than people with low need for cognition.
Need for cognition also plays a role in Persuasion. In brief, people with high need for cognition tend to be influenced more by the quality of the arguments presented and less by cues such as the credibility of the source, the attractiveness of the person trying to persuade, the framing of the message and their own emotions. People with a low need for cognition tend to be persuaded more by the cues aforementioned and in the absence of external motivations they give significantly less importance to the quality of the arguments.
To sum up, need for cognition is a personality trait that refers to the degree of engaging in (and enjoying) effortful thinking. From the dual-system perspective, need for cognition refers to the extent to which system 2 reasoning is used. People with high (vs. low) need for cognition tend to be affected less by (but not immune to) judgment biases. When it comes to persuasion, people with high need for cognition focus more on the quality of the arguments, whereas people with low need for cognition focus more on other cues.
Need for cognition does not refer to intelligence. The main difference between high and low need for cognition is the willingness or disposition to engage in elaborate thinking. People with high need for cognition engage in elaborate thinking without external motivation or incentives, whereas people with low need for cognition do so only in the presence of external motivation.
The relevance of need cognition in practice
For human resources management need for cognition can be used in recruiting for jobs that demand high levels of critical thinking. In this case high levels of need for cognition should be preferred. For jobs that require more creativity and spontaneity, low levels of need for cognition should be preferred. For some small scale “execution” jobs need for cognition is irrelevant.
For marketing, need for cognition is relevant in two ways. First, when it comes to persuasion and marketing communication, marketers should be aware that in the absence of solid arguments people with high need for cognition will not be persuaded. For some product categories this is not really relevant, but for other product categories it can be highly important.
Second, considering that people with high need for cognition are affected less by judgment biases, this may lead to a decreased efficacy of choice architecture.
If you are interested in using need for cognition here is a link to one scale that measures it http://www.liberalarts.wabash.edu/ncs/
This post is documented from: Petty Richard E., Brinol Pablo, Loersch Chris, McCaslin Michael J. “Need for cognition” Chapter 21 in Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior (source)