Need for Cognition

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Need for Cognition


In 1982 the American psychologists John T. Cacioppo and Richard E. Petty proposed that people differ with respect to their tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive activity. People high in need for cognition are characterized as having a propensity toward seeking out, acquiring, and thinking critically and carefully about information in order to make sense of the world around them. In comparison, people low in need for cognition are characterized as being more likely to rely on low-effort heuristics or rules of thumb (e.g., what do the experts say?) to achieve such understanding.

Considerable research attests to the validity of this distinction between individuals high and low in need for cognition. It has been repeatedly found that people higher in need for cognition (as measured by the Need for Cognition Scale) remember more of the information to which they are exposed. This result is consistent with the basic memory literature, which demonstrates that thinking about and elaborating on information improves its subsequent recall. When they encounter events that are unexpected, individuals high in need for cognition tend to spontaneously generate explanations to account for such events. Individuals low in need for cognition, on the other hand, generally lack the motivation to engage in such effortful explanatory processing.

Their willingness to exert themselves cognitively can often help people high in need for cognition avoid some common judgmental biases. Research indicates that a higher need for cognition can assist individuals in overcoming the fundamental attribution errorthe tendency to attribute anothers behavior to dispositional causes (i.e., to his or her unique qualities) even when clear situational factors were present that would have caused most people to behave similarly. The fundamental attribution error is known to be most severe when people fail to deliberately and effortfully consider the role of the situation in generating explanations for the behavior of others. Because they are more disposed to engage in this kind of processing, those high, as compared to low, in need for cognition will make attributions that more appropriately reflect the influence of situational variables.

The factors that lead people to change their attitudes seem to depend heavily on their need for cognition. Individuals high in need for cognition respond best to strong arguments that are cogent and backed up with compelling evidence. They scrutinize and reflect carefully on the presented arguments, and to the extent that their thoughts about the message are on balance favorable, they will modify their attitude in accordance with the message. Because assessing argument quality requires considerable cognitive effort, people low in need for cognition rely instead on more heuristic cues, such as the expertise of the communicator or the source of the message, to help them decide whether to agree or disagree with the message.

It should be noted that these differences in need for cognition can be moderated by the demands of the situation. When a situation strongly calls for effortful cognitive processing, people low in need for cognition are quite capable of matching the quality and quantity of thinking exhibited by people high in need for cognition. Similarly, some situations require minimal cognitive engagement to negotiate; in such instances, even individuals high in need for cognition may refrain from cognitively exerting themselves.

SEE ALSO Attitudes; Persuasion


Cacioppo, John T., and Richard E. Petty. 1982. The Need for Cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 42 (1): 116131.

Cacioppo, John T., Richard E. Petty, Jeffery A. Feinstein, and W. Blair G. Jarvis. 1996. Dispositional Differences in Cognitive Motivation: The Life and Times of Individuals Varying in Need for Cognition. Psychological Bulletin 119 (2): 197253.

G. Daniel Lassiter