Our brains are like a cockpit, with a series of dials indicating inputs to various variables. Am I under threat? Is anything new happening? Is more effort needed for this task?
One of these dials measures cognitive ease on a range from “easy” to “strained”. If the dial points to easy that means things are going well and there are no stresses. If the dial points to strained, then a problem exists.
In the latter case our brain’s System 2 will have to be mobilised. System 2 is the slower, more deliberate system that takes over when the gatekeeper, the more intuitive System 1, can’t solve a problem.
This is the model outlined in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann. This cognitive strain can have serious effects. An Israeli study showed that judges are much less likely to grant parole when they are hungry than when they have eaten. The hungrier they get, the greater cognitive strain they are under and the less able their System 2 is to cope with it. They respond by refusing to make a decision at all and deny parole.
One thing that eases cognitive strain is priming. This is when an idea is associated with another and makes it easier to accept the second one. For example, a study of voting patterns in Arizona found that support for a proposition to increase funding for schools increased when the vote was held in a school. The location of the vote shouldn’t have made any difference, but it did.
This has implications for research on unfamiliar topics, if the argument is counter-consensual, or if your research brand is new and so hasn’t built up that buffer of trust. The cognitive barrier is much higher because of the unfamiliarity, making rejection more likely.
In writing, the more you can do to reduce the reader’s cognitive strain the better it is for your message. Presentation is key – irritating fonts or design will increase cognitive strain as will lack of clarity, bad grammar and typos. Editing reduces this strain and eases the path for your message.