Why the Need for Cognition is a Survival Skill

The internet is the single greatest collection of human knowledge in history, but with the answer to nearly any question easily accessible, what purpose does the need for cognition serve in the modern world?

Girl with magnifying glass

A person's curiosity is more state than trait, and it follows that we can arrange our lives to stoke our curiosity or quash it.

Photo by Fotolia/Sergey Nivens

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The web is easier to search than ever, but the fact that it meets our desires so efficiently doesn’t mean it is stoking our desire to learn more. Curiosity, Ian Leslie explains in Curious (Basic Books, 2014) is sustained by unanswered questions, and is increasingly difficult to harness in our wired world. People with a high need for cognition—curious people—are the drivers of innovation, but when the answers are available with the click of a mouse, habits of patience and focused application atrophy. The following excerpt on the role of curiosity in contemporary culture is from the introduction, “The Fourth Drive.”

Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings: Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box. Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Even humanist philosopher Erasmus suggested that curiosity was greed by a different name. For most of Western history, it has been regarded as at best a distraction, at worst a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society.

There’s a reason for this. Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested.

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind—especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state—was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

Great Prosperity Leads to the Great Stagnation

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull. With the important exception of the Internet, the innovations that catapulted Western societies ahead of the global pack are thin on the ground, while the rapid growth of Asian and South American economies has not yet been accompanied by a comparable run of indigenous innovation. Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, has termed the current period the Great Stagnation.

Cowen says that the rich world is struggling to cope with the consequences of its own success; it now finds it much harder to raise the educational levels of its populaces. Rather than just getting more people to school and university, therefore, the new challenge is to find ways of making more people hungry to learn, question, and create. Meanwhile, the leaders of Asian societies, such as those of China and Singapore, are wondering how to instill a culture of inquiry and critical thinking into their educational systems, aware that people who defer too much to the authority of their elders’ ideas are less likely to transcend them. The world is in need of more curious learners.

Edmund Phelps, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, believes that the grassroots spirit of enterprise that fueled the Industrial Revolution is being suffocated by the dead weight of state and corporate bureaucracy. During a roundtable discussion of Phelps’s work, a senior executive at the international bank BNY Mellon told Phelps: “So much of what you’ve talked about is what we struggle with daily as a large global financial corporation. . . . [A]s our regulators and societies want us to be more controlled, we want to create a culture that is more collaborative, is more creative and more competitive. We need our staff to be active, inquiring, imaginative, and full of ideas and curiosity in order to create innovation.”

The truly curious will be increasingly in demand. Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests, who have a strong, intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems, and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times, these individuals, for their interests and enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part, they will be worth the difficulty.

Curious learners go deep, and they go wide. They are the people best equipped for kind of knowledge-rich, cognitively challenging work required in industries such as finance or software engineering. They are also the ones most likely to make creative connections between different fields, of the kind that lead to new ideas and the ones best suited to working in multidisciplinary teams. Consequently, they are the ones whose jobs are least likely to be taken by intelligent machines; in a world where technology is rapidly replacing humans even in white-collar jobs, it’s no longer enough to be merely smart. Computers are smart. But no computer, however sophisticated, can yet be said to be curious.

Another way of putting this is that there is a rising premium on people with a high “need for cognition.” Need for cognition, or NFC, is a scientific measure of intellectual curiosity. The drive to make sense of the world is a universal characteristic of human beings, but the world is divided into those who always seek out shortcuts and those who prefer to take the scenic route. Psychologists use a scale of NFC to distinguish between individuals who like their mental life to be as straightforward as possible and those who derive satisfaction and pleasure from intellectual challenges.

Assess Your Need for Cognition

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you have a reasonably high NFC, but here is a simple way to assess yourself, based on a questionnaire invented by the psychologists who first formulated the concept. Answer each question “true” or “false,” choosing the answer that most often applies to you (truthfully!):

1. I would prefer complex to simple problems.
2. I like to have the responsibility of handling a situation that requires a lot of thinking.
3. Thinking is not my idea of fun.
4. I would rather do something that requires little thought than something that is sure to challenge my thinking abilities.
5. I try to anticipate and avoid situations where there is a likely chance I will have to think in depth about something.
6. I find satisfaction in deliberating hard and for long hours.
7. I only think as hard as I have to.
8. I prefer to think about small, daily projects than long-term ones.
9. I like tasks that require little thought once I’ve learned them.
10. The idea of relying on thought to make my way to the top appeals to me.
11. I really enjoy a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems.
12. Learning new ways to think doesn’t excite me very much.
13. I prefer my life to be filled with puzzles that I can’t solve.
14. The notion of thinking abstractly is appealing to me.
15. I would prefer a task that is intellectual, difficult, and important to one that is somewhat important but does not require much thought.
16. I feel relief rather than satisfaction after completing a task that required a lot of mental effort.
17. It’s enough for me that something gets the job done. I don’t care how or why it works.
18. I usually end up deliberating about issues even when they do not affect me personally.

If you answered “true” to most of the questions 1, 2, 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, and 18 and “false” to most of the others, then the chances are you are higher in NFC than the average person.

People who are low in NFC are more likely to rely on others to explain things, or to fall back on cognitive heuristics, like agreeing with what everyone else seems to be saying. If you are high in NFC, you are more likely to actively seek out experiences and information that make you think, challenge your assumptions, and pose puzzles. You have a restless, inquiring mind, and you are constantly on the lookout for new intellectual journeys. Low NFC people are “cognitive misers” who seek to expend as little mental effort as they can get away with, whereas high NFC people positively enjoy “effortful cognitive activity”—they are the ones who read nonfiction books like this one or tingle with anticipation at the prospect of learning about a new idea.

That word “effortful” is important—a major concern of this book is that digital technologies are severing the link between effort and mental exploration. By making it easier for us to find answers, the Web threatens habits of deeper inquiry—habits that require patience and focused application. When you’re confident that you can find out anything you want on your smartphone, you may be less likely to make the effort to learn the kind of knowledge that might lead you to query the answer that comes at the top of a Google search. As we’ll see, there are those who argue that by releasing us from the need to use our memories, the Internet is allowing us to be more creative. But such claims fly in the face of everything scientists have learned about how the mind works.

Intellectual Curiosity is a Skill

Effort and pleasure can go together, of course. If you are high in NFC, you are probably good at solving problems for your employer, because you’re really solving them for yourself. Social scientists who study group behavior have observed a phenomenon they call “social loafing”—the widespread tendency of individuals to decrease their own effort when they start working collaboratively. When confident that others are working on the same problem, most people cut themselves some slack. But individuals who are high in need for cognition seem to form an exception to this rule; when given a cognitively challenging task to do in a group, they generate just as many different ideas as when working alone. They’re having fun.

If you scored high on the test, congratulations. Don’t let it go to your head, though. Just because you have a high NFC now doesn’t mean you’ll always have one—as John Lloyd can tell you. It’s true that some people are more disposed to be cognitively demanding of themselves than others. But the scientific literature on curiosity, while it disagrees on many things, agrees on this: a person’s curiosity is more state than trait. That is, our curiosity is highly responsive to the situation or environment we’re in. It follows that we can arrange our lives to stoke our curiosity or quash it.

Curiosity is vulnerable to benign neglect. As we grow older, we tend to become less active explorers of our mental environment, relying on what we’ve learned so far to see us through the rest of the journey. We can also become too preoccupied with the daily skirmishes of existence to take the time to pursue our interests. If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of color, interest, and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in your creative life. While barely noticing it, you’ll become a little duller, a little dimmer. You may not think it could happen to you, but it can. It can happen to any of us. To stop it from happening, you need to understand what feeds curiosity and what starves it.


Excerpted from Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It by Ian Leslie. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.