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What Is Cognitive Kindness?

It's time to prioritize being kind to our minds.

Key points

  • Our cognitive abilities and resources are among our most valuable individual and collective assets.
  • Cognitive kindness honors our abilities to reason and understand, to imagine and create, to dream and design.
  • We each have the ability and responsibility to empower the thinking of others.
Kristopher Roller/Unsplash
Source: Kristopher Roller/Unsplash

Being Kind to Our Minds

Valuable resources should ideally be requested and allocated intentionally. And while we're often at least aware of the importance of treating resources such as money and time with care, we often fail to even recognize the importance of doing so for what are arguably our most valuable individual and collective assets of all—our cognitive resources.

The birth of modern-day cognitive psychology is often referred to as "The Cognitive Revolution." That revolution elevated the study of thought within psychology. We need nothing short of a new kind of cognitive revolution, one that elevates thinking not just within a field of study, but within our lives. A revolution centered on what we call cognitive kindness.

Cognitive kindness is a generosity of spirit toward others’ minds and one’s own mind that proceeds from a fundamental valuing of our individual and collective cognitive abilities. Cognitive kindness calls our attention to our tremendous cognitive abilities—our abilities to reason and understand, to imagine and create, to dream and design, to envision and enact. Ideally, cognitive kindness is extended to others without the expectation of any particular return for ourselves. It’s about empowering the thinking of others.

Cognitive kindness urges us to consider how we might apply what science tells us about how our minds work to all that we do and design, in ways that liberate and empower the full cognitive potential of each person. What could that look like? Let's consider one example. And because being effectively kind to the mind depends on an accurate understanding of how our minds work, let's begin with a research finding.

Research Reveals: The Illusion of Transparency

Studies suggest that people often overestimate the extent to which their thoughts, attitudes, and feelings are evident to others—a phenomenon termed the illusion of transparency .

For example, participants induced to lie overestimated the extent to which others could tell that they were lying, and in another study, participants asked to drink samples of good-tasting and foul-tasting liquids overestimated the number of people who could tell which liquid they were drinking (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 1998).

From Research Toward Cognitive Kindness: Some Ideas

Now, how might we take that research finding and apply it toward cognitive kindness—i.e., apply it in ways that ease and/or improve the thinking of others in our everyday lives?

One Idea: Broadcast Your Intentions

Imagine this: You're out for a walk and are about to cross the exit from a parking lot. You notice a car pull out of a parking space and approach the exit. You're not sure whether the driver sees you or is planning to stop; the driver may be wondering something similar about you. The illusion of transparency tells us that even if we think our intentions are obvious, they may not be.

Why not broadcast your intention to walk behind and not in front of the vehicle by angling your body accordingly and walking deliberately in that direction? By doing so, you've substantially reduced the challenge for the driver of accurately anticipating your next move (and perhaps also prevented an accident).

You've just been cognitively kind in multiple ways: You've freed up cognitive capacity for the driver and increased the driver's predictive accuracy.

Another Idea: Broadcast (or Even Exaggerate) Your Interest

Now imagine you're attending a presentation that you're keenly interested in. You'd expect this would be obvious to the presenter. Yet you also know about the illusion of transparency. What might you do?

Intentionally broadcasting—exaggerating even—indicators of your interest can liberate the cognitive capacity of a presenter who is trying to figure out whether the audience cares. Lean forward, nod your head, and make eye contact, perhaps with a bit more gusto than you might feel is necessary.

More Ideas: Your Ideas

In what other contexts and ways might we apply an understanding of the illusion of transparency toward the goal of easing and improving one another's thinking? How might it change what we aim to communicate, how we choose to communicate it, and with whom? How might we bring this to our various roles—leader, doctor, patient, teacher, student, parent—to name a few possibilities? How might we bring it to our various realms and modes of communication and our choices among them—in-person conversation, phone call, email, websitel—to name a few? We encourage your consideration of interactions and contexts large and small, personal and professional, at the individual, organizational, and systems levels.

The Possibility of Cognitive Kindness

The illusion of transparency is only one finding about how our minds work. There are so many, many more. And each is a starting point for multiple paths toward cognitive kindness. What might be possible if we genuinely prioritized one another's minds as the valuable, incredible resource that they are?

In future posts, we'll further explore principles and possibilities for cognitive kindness, each grounded in what science tells us about how our minds work.

TEDx Talk: The possibility of cognitive kindness

© Karen Yu

Facebook/LinkedIn image: GalacticDreamer/Shutterstock


Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (1998). The illusion of transparency: Biased assessments of others' ability to read one's emotional states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 332-346.