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Aditi Mehra DHS, OTR/L

9 Signs You May Be a Cognitive Miser

We try to find shortcuts for everything—including thinking.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. What on earth is a cognitive miser? I’ll jump straight to it. It's a term coined by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, which Live Science described as: the brain’s tendency to seek solutions to problems that take the least mental effort. Translation: We don’t want to think, and we avoid it at all cost!

We have all formed habits that enable us to virtually bypass the thinking process. We’ve hardwired our brains to take shortcuts. For many adults, this “non-thinking” aspect runs on autopilot as though the brain knows no other way.

While this habit has often been too ingrained for many adults to fully reverse, it is not too late to foster better habits in our children. Here are nine common cognitive shortcuts most people use to minimize the use of the brains we’ve been given. If you (or your child) are prone to any of these, you just might be a cognitive miser:

1. "Get to the Point!"

When I was in school, I and many of my classmates would utilize those little yellow and black booklets known as Cliffs Notes. They were handy little tools that summarized 500-page novels in approximately 50 pages. We’d be done in one night with what would’ve otherwise taken us weeks!

Today, kids can use resources from the internet that are even more efficient—and often free. Schmoop, for instance, is an online study guide that summarizes material in a more contemporary fashion. A New York Times article gave the following example of Schmoop's methodology: "Schmoop explains the satire in 'Candide' by comparing it to modern satires like 'The Simpsons' and 'Family Guy.'”

If a child read that particular analogy, it might help him or her gain a better understanding of the original literature. But what would the child be deprived of? Making his or her own connections. We need our kids to read—and read fully—so that they can make their own unique connections. Connections form the basis for logical reasoning and problem solving, and many of these short cuts are depriving children of that thoughtful craft.

It’s not just about solving logic problems, but it’s more about solving life problems. We certainly don’t want our kids growing up naïve or gullible, right? Children must learn to do more than simply take things at “face value” and must have the ability to apply deductive reasoning skills and use rebuttals when necessary. This passage from a Concordia University article sums it up nicely: "However students learn about fallacies, it is essential to get them past the theoretical and draw them into exercises identifying fallacies." In other words, agreement is easy! But using thoughtful analysis to challenge the status quo—that takes effort.

2. "A Picture Says 1,000 Words"

Visuals are almost always a great way to provide some additional context or clarification to words. What they should not do is serve as a replacement for words.

In many respects, comic books may have signaled the start of our visual dependency. Suddenly, kids could flip through the pages of a book, glimpse at the pictures, and get a nice general idea of the story. That is, if they even cared about the story at all. The modern version of this can be seen in books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Big Nate.

Kids can escape into books very easily—but are they really reading? An article in Scholastic revealed the following statistic: While almost nine in 10 parents of children ages 6–17 (86 percent) say it is extremely or very important for their child to read books for fun, less than half of kids (46 percent) say the same. Whose fault is that? It's hard to say, but in my view, it's not the kid's.

If someone were to ask the question, "How do you rate yourself as a parent?" how many parents would rate themselves as being awful moms and dads? Probably not many.

Most of us try, often unsuccessfully, to conform to the “norms” of society. To label oneself as a “bad” parent subjects oneself to criticism or judgment from society. Who wants that? Parents know that reading is encouraged, so naturally they want to project the image that reading is important to them. But words and ideologies are not enough. Parents need to consistently encourage their children to read, and precisely monitor what they are reading. Without accountability and oversight, a child is unlikely to make an independent choice to read---especially given all the digital distractions that exist.

3. "Just Wait for the Movie"

I love a great movie as much as the next person. In many respects, it is the ultimate get-away. How can you blame a kid for wanting to watch that epic Star Wars trilogy instead of reading it cover-to-cover? I confess—I've never read the books either.

When movies are visually stunning and action-packed, two-plus hours can pass in the blink of an eye. Why is a movie so much more appealing than a book? It's simple—a movie takes a lot less brainpower than reading.

With a movie, you can just immerse yourself into the big screen and let it take you away. Reading a book involves crafting the words and sentences together and producing your own internal visualizations. In Kevin Horsley’s book Unlimited Memory, he wrote, "Your mind is like an internal movie screen on which you can ask it to produce information."

Reading is a more scrupulous process, but a worthwhile one. But if your children love movies, don't despair. Movies still have value, and can be used as motivation to encourage reading. Every time your kid reads a full book, for example, you can take him or her to the theater to see that latest blockbuster.

4. "Poetic Justice"

Some people say that poetry is dead. But this isn't exactly true, and poetry presents itself most often in the form of a ballad. What is a song, after all, if not a poem set to music?

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to memorize a song than school definitions or the periodic table of elements? Why is that? A song has rhythm, rhyme schemes, and a catchy beat. All these ingredients combine to aid in the memorization process.

In this age of technology, it’s hard to believe there was a time when writing didn’t exist, but there was. Back then, humans relied on what was called an “oral culture.” In order to memorize large quantities of information, people had to rely on poetic speech. Citing Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy, Perell said the following: "Oral cultures are dependent on their memories. Knowledge that wasn't repeated disappeared."

Remember Homer? Not the goofy guy from The Simpsons—the Greek literary guy responsible for writing The Iliad and The Odyssey. Those stories came from a series of oral poems that were passed down from generation to generation.

Just imagine the memories they must have had during that time period. We need to rekindle some of that spirit from those days. We need to instruct children on what a powerful tool poetic language can be. By teaching them to learn using rhythm and rhymes, a great deal more information can be learned and retained.

5. "Surf’s Up!"

Most of us can’t even go a day without “surfing the net." There’s even a good chance that you stumbled upon this post through the act of sifting through endless morsels of information. Let’s face it—as a society, we’ve become addicted to the ever-tempting allure of the web. As a result, it is not uncommon to while away hours on end in our various browsing habits.

But is it productive? Perhaps a better way to put it might be: Is it enhancing our brains or limiting them? The answers to these questions are not simple. We are almost forced to apply the legal standard of “intent” here.

When I do research for an article, my intention is sound, right? (I suppose that all depends on what you think of my article.) On the other hand, think about the intention of those individuals who are constantly checking up on their social media. It could be Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—you name it. A quick look here and a quick response there is likely harmless. But what about those who are continuously immersed in their social media? What if the intent behind those actions is social acceptance or validation? Now we’re stepping onto rocky ground.

An article in The Guardian summed up this type of behavior by saying, "The positive feelings gained from social media approval are said to work on the same neurological basis as drugs do; providing rewards via the dopamine system." Naturally, when internet usage gets to the point of being labeled an addiction, it is not only counterproductive, but grossly limiting our brain input as well.

Today’s children know of no other existence than one with the internet and smartphone technology. Thus, they have an even greater tendency to rationalize or justify their internet/social media activity. As parents, we need to closely monitor their usage and make sure that their behaviors do not become addictive in nature.

6. "Conversation Stagnation"

I never thought I’d see the day that I would ask this question—is conversation actually dying? Okay, perhaps that's a bit extreme, but I don't think the notion is entirely off track. Have you ever seen two teenagers sitting across from each other at a table, communicating over their mobile devices instead of with their voices? I have!

For some people, the smartphone has become a substitution for conversation. As if the digital exchange at the dinner table were not bad enough, my soccer carpooling experiences were perhaps even more shocking. On average, it takes about 20 minutes to go from the fields back to our house. There have been multiple occasions in which not a single word was exchanged between the kids during that time. And these are good friends we’re talking about—classmates and soccer buddies.

Consider this quote in Huffington Post: "The two forms of communication—virtual and physical—can work in tandem, but the physical kind obviously takes a bit more effort, but most often results in a far more meaningful experience." As parents, we not only need to oversee digital communication, but we need to encourage a more preferred communication platform—the spoken word.

7. "Write Like We Talk"

Many “blogging experts” advise writing in a conversational tone and not exceeding a 5th-grade level. I, on the other hand, am a purist, and find it unfortunate that a college-educated writer should have to lower his or her writing standards to conform to the masses. With every advancement in technology, we seemingly degrade our “foundational” skills (grammar, spelling, speech). This quote from Forbes about Generation Z kids is perhaps most telling:

"Gen Z grew up with a mobile device in their hand and, as a result, there is a tendency and expectation for everything to be available immediately. In addition, their world has been about tweets and sound bites of information rather than carefully crafted sentences and deliberate presentations."

It's hard enough to grasp the idea that conversation is a dying art, but could writing be suffering the same degradation? Writing should be about “carefully crafted sentences” and not just spoken words in a written format. Imagine what Socrates, Shakespeare, or Dostoevsky might think. We’re on the brink of putting self-driving cars into the mainstream, yet carefully crafted sentences are somehow a thing of the past?

Parents, it is essential that we hold our children to high written standards. Conversation and writing are two separate arts, both of which are essential in their own unique ways. They should remain unique, as they both strengthen cognition through different but equally important modalities.

8. "Google It and Forget It"

I love Google. Don’t we all? Writers like myself rely on their algorithms to research—as well as to uncover our own brilliant and well-crafted written works. Perhaps what I love even more about Google is that I am no longer required to accept my brother’s ill-conceived facts as gospel. Despite the confidence and conviction with which he argues, I can now proudly turn to Google and contradict him on the spot.

On the other hand, there is something special about retaining knowledge. The idea of just knowing the answer to something and blurting it out—it's liberating. I am always envious of those Jeopardy contestants who seem to know a little something about everything.

Given the vast array of information with which the internet floods our heads, are we taking the time to smell the roses—to actually learn? A Huffington Post article cited a Stanford University study, which indicated that "the brains of people who are constantly bombarded with several streams of electronic information—from instant messaging to blogs—may find it difficult to pay attention and switch from one job to another efficiently."

As a society, we may have become too reliant on Google. We use it as a crutch. We use it far too often as a reason not to retain information. Where is Google when an attorney is in court and the judge asks him to recite the elements of a valid contract? Where is Google when a congressman is asked for the key attributes of the latest healthcare bill? There are times in life when we simply need to have answers—and have them immediately.

Our kids are the future attorneys or future members of Congress. We need to hold them accountable for seeking and retaining knowledge. Compared to the days of Homer (the Greek guy), we require comparatively little of our children today. While there’s plenty of knowledge available at our fingertips, that should be a supplement to the knowledge in our heads—not a substitute.

9. "Just Outsource It"

I’m not going to give this topic too much discussion. Yes, we outsource our taxes to the accountants, and we outsource our medical care to doctors. You get the point. No single person can be an expert in everything, so focusing on one’s core competency is certainly critical to success (both that of individuals and of societies at large).

Sometimes, however, we’re not properly outsourcing our work, but instead “passing the buck." What does “passing the buck” imply? It may convey that we’re being lazy. It may say that we don’t want to do the work. More importantly, it may also indicate a lack of confidence.

In order to feed our brains, it is essential that we have a “can do” spirit toward work and toward learning new things. As parents, we need to encourage our children to be willing to step outside of their comfort zones. Only by breaking free from the constraints of our personal comforts can we truly test our cognitive capabilities.


We are all guilty of being cognitive misers to some extent. Some may exhibit more of the above characteristics, while others may show fewer signs. What most of us have in common is the ability to change—it simply requires making a conscious choice to feed our minds the essential nourishment required. On the other hand, we must stray from things that will have a draining effect on our brains. Remember that the brain is like a muscle. The more we work it, the stronger it becomes.


About the Author

Aditi Mehra, Ph.D., is a pediatric occupational therapist with 20 years of experience within the field.