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Need for cognition

Author: Dr Simon Moss


The attitudes and evaluations of some, but not all, individuals are biased by the humor, appearance, or credibility of speakers. In contrast, other individuals are not biased by these factors. Furthermore, some individuals are more likely to enjoy some experience, like a movie, if their expectations were high. Other individuals are more inclined to enjoy some experience if their expectations were low (see Geers & Lassiter, 2003).

The concept of need for cognition can explain all of these findings. That is, some individuals like to engage in complex, inquisitive, and analytical thoughts. They feel intrinsically motivated to devote effort to cognitive endeavors, striving to understand objects, events, and individuals.

These individuals are less inclined to be biased by superficial factors, such as the appearance of speakers or social comparisons. In addition, they are more inclined to enjoy some experience if their expectations were low (see Geers & Lassiter, 2003).

Implications of need for cognition

Role in persuasion

Need for cognition gained prominence in the literature that assumes that individuals engage in one of two modes when they process information. The heuristic-systematic model (Chaiken, 1987) and the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986& Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983& Petty, Harkins, & Williams,1980& Petty, Harkins, Williams, & Latane, 1977& Petty & Wegener,1999) exemplify this assumption. According to these models, individuals sometimes evaluate the information carefully, systemically, and analytically. Alternatively, they forgo this careful analysis, instead invoking heuristics or simple principles to evaluate arguments. They might, for example, consider the credibility or confidence of a speaker.

Several factors affect the likelihood that individuals will evaluate information systematically and elaborate the considerations carefully. For example, individuals tend to evaluate issues carefully, sometimes called the central rather than peripheral route, if the issues is personally relevant (Haugtvedt & Petty, 1992). In contrast, the need for cognition represents an individual characteristic, representing an inclination to apply this central or systematic route.

Hence, when individuals exhibit a need for cognition, they are more likely to be influenced by strong rather than weak arguments. They are less biased by superficial cues, such as humor (Zhang, 1996). That is, they do not prefer humorous advertisements or purchase products promoted in these commercials.

Need for cognition also affects certainty of attitudes. Individuals who report a need for cognition process information more carefully and extensively. According to the thoughtfulness heuristic, attitudes seem more certain after individuals process information extensively. Consistent with this premise, need for cognition is related to attitude certainty (Barden & Petty, 2008).

Susceptibility to vivid narratives

When individuals read a vivid narrative or tale, they often feel as if they have been transported into the story. They feel they were involved in the event. After individuals are transported into these stories, their attitudes are more likely to change. For example, if transported into a tale about a young Eskimo boy and dog, trapped in a fragmented piece of ice, both of whom decide to help rather than eat one another, people become more likely to value camaraderie.

Interestingly, both need for cognition, as well as need for affect--the motivation to experience strong emotions--increase the likelihood that people will become transported into these narratives (Thompson & Haddock, 2012). If need for cognition is elevated, people contemplate the tales more extensively, and appreciate the complexity of narratives, both of which facilitate transportation. If need for affect is elevated, people enjoy the emotions that transportation can evoke.

The implication of this possibility is that need for cognition can, in some instances, increase the susceptibility of people to messages. For example, if an advertisement presents a narrative, need for cognition can facilitate transportation and thus diminish the likelihood of counterarguments. In contrast, if an advertisement presents a series of facts, instead of a narrative, transportation is precluded, and need for cognition could increase the likelihood of counterarguments.

Thompson and Haddock (2012) conducted three studies that verify these possibilities. In the first study, some participants read about the young Eskimo boy and dog, trapped in a fragmented piece of ice, both of whom decide to help rather than eat one another. Other participants read a story that was not as vivid and not as likely to foster transportation. In addition, participants completed questions that assess the extent to which they felt transported into this narrative as well as their attitudes towards friendship. Finally, need for cognition and need for affect were measured. Both need for cognition and need for affect increased the likelihood that participants would be transported into the vivid tale--and also augmented the probability they would value friendship as a consequence.

In the second study, participants read one of two advertisements. The first advertisement included a narrative about a girl who died from cervical cancer and then ended with information about screening for this form of cancer. The second advertisement did not include a narrative. Participants then answered questions about their attitudes towards screening for cervical cancer and also completed measures of need for cognition and need for affect.

If participants had read the narrative, need for cognition and need for affect was positively related to the perceived importance of screening. Presumably, these participants had been transported into the narrative and were thus persuaded by the advertisement. If participants had not read the narrative, need for cognition and need for affect was negatively related to the perceived importance of screening. Need for cognition may have evoked counterarguments. People with a need for affect may not have felt their preferences were satisfied. The third study replicated these findings but with a different disease.

Susceptibility to primes and provisional assumptions

Individuals who report a high need for cognition are less susceptible to blatant primes, such as positive words that appear before a message. That is, because they think carefully, they often anticipate potential biases and then adjust accordingly (e.g., Petty, DeMarree, Brinol, Horcajo, & Strathman, 2008).

Nevertheless, these individuals are more susceptible to subtle, incidental primes. That is, unlike other individuals, they process these subtle primes in more depth (e.g., Petty, DeMarree, Brinol, Horcajo, & Strathman, 2008).

Similarly, individuals who report a need for cognition are less susceptible to prevalent assumptions. To illustrate, at first glance, individuals tend to assume the price of products is too steep. Individuals who report a need for cognition will tend to question this provisional assumption, and thus are less inclined to perceive a price as unreasonable (e.g. Suri & Monroe, 2001).

Behavior and performance

Need for cognition does not manifest only in the context of persuasion. For example, individuals who report a need for cognition tend to watch fewer hours of TV than do other participants. Individuals who do not report a need for cognition often experience a sense of monotony, except when they engage in concrete activities. Hence, they often watch TV to overcome this sense of monotony and frustration. In contrast, individuals who report a need for cognition can entertain various thoughts and images to occupy themselves (see Henning & Vorderer, 2001).

Need for cognition is also positively related to performance, at least in some domains. For example, Sojka and Deeter-Schmelz (2008) showed that need for cognition is related to sales performance, as gauged by self ratings and objective indices.

Expectations about future performance

Individuals who report need for cognition tend to predict their performance more accurately than do their counterparts (Reinhard & Dickhauser, 2009). In particular, to predict performance, individuals need to consider the difficulty of their task. This estimation has been shown to demand both the capacity and motivation to think carefully. Individuals who do not report a need for cognition do not analyze task difficulty comprehensively-and thus do not predict their performance accurately. Individuals who report a need for cognition do analyze task difficulty comprehensively, provided their attention is not distracted by other activities.

Consistent with these arguments, Reinhard and Dickhauser (2009) showed that performance expectations were correlated with task difficulty as well as actual performance, but primarily in participants who reported a high need for cognition. Indeed, even this pattern was observed only if individuals were not distracted by another difficult numerical task.

Reflections after feedback

Anseer, Lievens, and Schollaert (2009) showed that reflecting on feedback, which is related to need for cognition, can facilitate improvements in performance. In other words, reflections upon previous performance might represent one of the mechanisms that relates need for cognition to improvements in performance.

In their study, participants completed a work simulation exercise, in which they responded to a variety of emails. In response to each email, participants specified which of four possible courses of action they would pursue. An algorithm was developed to assess performance.

Midway through the exercise, some participants received feedback, specifying their performance thus far. In addition, some of these participants were encouraged to reflect upon this feedback. Specifically, they were encouraged to consider activities they performed well and activities they did not perform well. Feedback tended to enhance subsequent performance, but especially if participants were encouraged to reflect upon their performance.

Nevertheless, in a subsequent study, Anseer, Lievens, and Schollaert (2009) showed that need for cognition, as well as a learning orientation, increased the likelihood that individuals would reflect upon their feedback. That is, participants who reported a high need for cognition or learning orientation were more inclined to follow the instructions to reflect upon their performance. Thus, such reflections might underpin the benefits of need for cognition and learning orientation on improvements in the aftermath of feedback.

Consequences and causes


Need for cognition is usually assumed to be positively related to wellbeing, life satisfaction, and self efficacy as well as inversely related to anxiety, distress, dejection, and other adverse affective states (see Cavasoz & Campbell, 2008). Cavasoz and Campbell (2008), however, showed that need for cognition can provoke worry and anxiety if coupled with a need for structure-that is, a preference for clarity rather than ambiguity.

Specifically, if individuals like to engage in careful thought and analysis, they can often uncover opportunities to solve problems and facilitate progress (cf. Heppner, Reeder, & Larson, 1983). Nevertheless, if they also experience a need for clarity and certainty, any tendency to think and analyze diligently can manifest as rumination and worry. That is, these individuals focus more readily on how various facets of their life differ from their preferences, and these discrepancies evoke agitation and distress.

Although need for cognition might often coincide with more pleasant mood states, Ruys and Stapel (2008) argued that negative mood states might foster a need for cognition. Feeling as information models, for example, imply that negative affective states imply that some danger or problem might pervade the environment, demanding careful reflections and analysis to identify and overcome (Schwarz, 1990). Consistent with this proposition, Ruys and Stapel (2008) showed that participants who were asked to recall and relive negative, rather than positive, events in the past subsequently reported a higher need for cognition.


Need for cognition is also related to openness and conscientiousness (Sadowski & Cogburn, 1997). That is, need for cognition reflects both openness--a curiosity and tolerance to novel ideas--as well as conscientiousness--a willingness to engage in effortful thought (e.g., Verplanken, Hazenberg, & Palenewen, 1992).

Neuropsychological underpinnings

Recently, research has begun to explore the neurophysiological correlates of need for cognition. In particular, as research using event related potentials has shown, need for cognition is associated with a higher P3a amplitudes in response to novel events. This finding implies that need for cognition represents involuntary shifts of attention to novel events.

Need for cognition is also associated with a higher P3b amplitude in response to target stimuli. This finding indicates that voluntary shifts of attention are also more pronounced in individuals who report elevated levels of need for cognition.

Intelligence and working memory

Several studies have explored the association between need for cognition and either intelligence or working memory. In general, these studies demonstrate that need for closure is positively associated with, at least some, facets of intelligence but not necessarily related to working memory (Hill, Foster, Elliott, Shelton, McCain, & Drew Gouvier, 2012).

For example, in one study, conducted by Hill, Foster, Elliott, Shelton, McCain, and Drew Gouvier, (2012), participants completed the WAIS, the Ravens Progressive Matrices, and three measures of working memory: operation span, listening span, and the modified lag task. They found that need for cognition is associated with both fluid and crystalized measures of intelligence but not working memory.

According to Hill et al. (2012), if need for cognition is elevated, participants might persist longer on tasks that assess crystalized intelligence. They might also expose themselves to more erudite environments, enhancing fluid intelligence. Alternatively, if people are intelligent, they might enjoy tasks that involve thinking, manifesting as need for cognition.


To measure need for cognition, many researchers administer the scale validated by Cacioppo, Petty, and Kao (1984& see also Sadowski, 1993). This scale comprises 18 items, such as "The notion of thinking abstractly is appealing to me" and "I only think as hard as I have to" (reverse coded). Half the questions are worded positively, and half the questions are worded negatively. Cronbach's alpha has been shown to approximate .87 (Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984). Although usually regarded as a trait, need for cognition can vary across contexts (Ruys & Stapel, 2008).

This measure has been used in many studies in the context of persuasion. This measure is also used to gauge individual differences in the cognitive experiential theory (e.g.,Epstein, Pacini, Denes-Raj, & Heier, 1996)

Some authors use only a subset of items, if the measure needs to be completed rapidly or repeatedly (e.g., Ruys & Stapel, 2008). They might use the items: "The idea of relying on thought to make my way to the top appeals to me"& "I would prefer a task that is intellectual, difficult, and important to one that is somewhat important but does not require much thought"& "Thinking is not my idea of fun" (reverse coded)& and "Learning new ways to think doesn't excite me very much" (reverse coded).

Related concepts

Epistemic curiosity is also similar to need for cognition. According to Litman (2008), epistemic curiosity refers to the motivation of individuals to acquire knowledge, learn ideas, and solve intellectual problems--a definition that overlaps with need for cognition.

Indeed, Mussel (2010) showed that epistemic curiosity and need for cognition, as well as typical intellectual engagement and openness for ideas, may represent the same underlying construct. Correlations between these various measures approached .6. Exploratory factor analysis uncovered one global factor.

Epistemic curiosity has been shown to be beneficial. Curiosity is indeed associated with personal growth (Kashdan, Rose, & Fincham, 2004) and even close relationships (Kashdan & Roberts, 2004).

Need for affect

The concept of need for affect was developed by Maio and Esses (2001). According to these researchers, need for affect indicates the degree to which people approach or avoid situations that provoke strong emotions.

Maio and Esses (2001) developed and validated a measure to gauge need for affect. In particular, the measure comprises two subscales. The first subscale, motivation to approach emotions, includes 13 items such as "I think it is important to explore my feelings". The second subscale, motivation to avoid emotions, also includes 13 items such as "I find strong emotions overwhelming and therefore try to avoid them".

People who experience a strong need for affect--defined as a high motivation to approach emotions, and a low motivation to avoid emotions--tend to report high levels of positive affect but low levels of negative affect. Therefore, if people embrace situations that evoke emotions, they are not as likely to experience unpleasant feelings (Maio & Esses, 2001). People who endorse a strong need for affect also report lower levels of alexithymia, the inability to describe emotions (Maio & Esses, 2001).

This scale is also related to cognitive style. Need for affect is positively associated with need for cognition but negatively associated with need for closure or structure. Presumably, people who approach emotions do not shun negative feelings and, therefore, can withstand uncertainty.

Finally, need for affect is related to personality. People who report need for affect also exhibit elevated levels of extraversion, neuroticism, openness, and agreeableness. This scale, however, is not related to social desirability bias.


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