The phenomenon of cognitive easing can be demonstrated with a simple application in our daily lives. If someone is told something on a regular basis, then the person will begin to feel as if it were true, regardless of it is actually true or not. An example includes that if a person is repeatedly told on a regular basis that “the body temperature of a chicken is 30 degrees Celsius” then the person is more likely to believe it to be true, without the person even checking the actual answer (The correct answer here is that it is around 41 degrees Celsius). A question comes up from this example, a question on why this is the case, and why something that is often repeated, feels true or positive.

This phenomenon, studies in detail in various academic fields, is called “Cognitive Ease”. Cognitive ease is the amount of work a person’s brain needs to do to understand something. If something is familiar, then the brain of the person does not need to work hard to understand what it is. However, if it is unfamiliar, then the brain needs to do additional work to understand what it is and what is happening. Therefore, matters and objects that are familiar and easy to understand, are generally processed easily in a person’s brain, compared to those that are harder to understand.

The reason behind anything familiar feeling less threatening has to do with the evolution of human beings. If someone is exposed to something and it seems harmless, the brain will easily dismiss it the next time it is encountered. However, is someone encounters anything novel that the person has not encountered before, then extra time is spent to evaluate the novel matter or object’s threat level. This is done to avoid the risk of potential harm or injury.

The same can be seen with information. Another interesting example connected to cognitive ease is that, if a question is written with an easily readable font or handwriting, then more people will answer it incorrectly, compared to if the same question was written in a font or handwriting that is hard to read. The reason behind this is that in the first case, the brain does not feel a threat from the question, and works little on analyzing the facts involved. For the second case, on the other hand, since it is more difficult to read, the brain feels slightly threatened, and subconsciously the brain spends more time analyzing the question. This increased the likelihood that the answer would be given correctly by the person.

The human brain consumes a lot of energy, so using less energy on anything familiar and using more of it in anything unfamiliar would have been a great advantage for our ancestors. This is the norm, even though it has lost some of its virtue in the modern age.

Cognitive ease is a background process, and the brain thinks subconsciously about such familiar cases. This results in anecdotes or ‘gut feelings’ seeming to be true or positive to the person since that is the case most of the time in regular day to day life. If a person does not know the answer in a multiple-choice question, then the option the person has seen used often will feel true, even if it is unrelated to the actual answer to that question. This cognitive ease is used by large companies to sell people sugar water at a high price. The main purpose of the advertisements is not to provide claims or anything of such sort, but it is to make people familiarize with the product. This makes the product seems familiar to the people, and in cases, they start believing the claims the advertisements present. This is despite the fact that these advertisements are, in the majority of cases, far from the truth.

Another form of cognitive easing is propaganda. As the superfluous claims made by leaders around the world seem absurd at first, people start becoming familiar with the claims through enough repetition. This results in people slowly starting to believe them, or at the very least, give much more thought to them than they did initially.

This is the reason why it is better to be skeptical about the information that is being received. Fact-checking is always good, even for seemingly trivial information. Cognitive ease is used effectively for certain tasks, but regarding information processing, cognitive ease is rarely helpful.

Further Reading

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.