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Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Least Cognitive Effort Principle

I got into a small discussion with a dude on twitter, in which it developed that I didn't actually have much of a point. He was remarking that Hannah Arendt identified the use of cliché as a marker of not-much-thought, with sometimes consequences.

Upon further thought, this meshes fairly neatly with a number of things I've been thinking of over the last few years. My belief is that humans husband their cognitive resources fairly jealously, and increasingly so in these over-mediated times. We simply refuse to expend actual thought on a lot of stuff, and have developed a lot of strategies to simplify those parts of our lives which we think of as "thoughtful." Specifically, we seek to simplify the process of reading, both literally and as a metaphor for consuming broader media. This is a generalization, I think, of Arendt's ideas around the use of cliché.

This shows up most obviously in literal reading, especially reading longer pieces of writing.

If you pay much attention, you realize pretty fast that people don't read. Not actually. What they usually do is skim, they look for keywords, they look for phrases, they look for a variety of clues. The purpose of the clue-finding is to help fit the text into a frame. The goal is to identify what the text probably says by matching it to a pretty small set of templates. If it's about color science in Sony cameras, it's probably either "Sony is awesome" or "Sony sucks" so all we have to do is work out which one it is and we're done. Surprisingly, people will do this same thing with a 30 word tweet. Rather than reading it, they'll pattern match it to a canned position, and assume it's a re-iteration of that position. A repetition, if you will, of the cliché.

This has a consequence that turns up in the way we write or more generally "produce content." At some level, we know that people are doing this, so we write in such a way as to ease the pattern matching. First, we adopt a well-established position that we're simply going to re-iterate, and then we lard the piece up with the right keywords and phrases to allow the casual reader to easily identify the position we're re-iterating.

This is, essentially, to deploy cliché as a communication device. The New Yorker will never challenge you, you can rely on it to perfectly meet your expectations, because it traffics in what we might broadly construe as clichés.

On both the production and consumption side, we're communicating in tropes and clichés, simply staking out the same positions over and over, saying the same things over and over. To be fair, original thoughts have always been rare and the bulk of human interaction has always been repetitive and shallow. It is possible that the glut of modern media has made this worse, though, as we more and more jealously guard our limited cognitive energy.

The principle in play here I have named the Least Cognitive Effort Principle. The LCE principle.

For the most part, movies and novels run on rails. We know how the superhero film is going to end up, the only variations are in which special effects will be deployed when and, honestly, that's not super important. Go ahead, take a pee break. The movie matches the template it telegraphed in the trailer and the first 2 minutes, it's fine. You know this film. You know this novel about the young woman in Brooklyn writing her first book, you can pretty much dip in anywhere. Everything is anodyne and predictable, because unless it is nobody will even pretend to read it, watch it, listen to it. We're too overloaded. There's a guy on twitter who just started a photo newsletter, got 20,000 subscribers out of the gate, and the first three newsletters have been the most uninteresting, anodyne, drivel ever.

People love it.

As I have mentioned repeatedly in the past, we see this with photographs.

News photographs do not function to show us what is new about the event, but rather what is the same. The photograph reveals the event to be exactly like the other similar events, we can pattern-match easily. Lefty protest. Righty protest. House fire. Politician speech (right/left.) Etc. We identify the photo immediately, and react not to the picture but to the template we've matched it to.

This makes people like me weirdos. I actually like expending brainpower on a photo, it's my hobby. This makes my understanding, my reading, of a photo different from that of some normie. I'm noticing the details that make it different, they're noticing only the large structure that makes it the same. They're identifying the underlying cliché.

Recall my Theory Of Photographs which is: that they constitute in a sense a portal to "there," that you react in a sense as if you were "there," and that you imagine a world to contain the photo. You imagine the time before and after the shutter press, you imagine the stuff just out of frame, and so on. You do this as an almost biological reaction to the hyper-detailed semi-reality of the photo.

The LCE principle implies a refinement: that you do all this imagining according to the LCE principle. You tend to imagine the world around the photo as pretty similar to yours, you ascribe motivations to the people in the photo in the cognitively-cheapest way possible. You're much more likely to imagine the policeman's emotions as matching whatever cheap opinion you have of cops than you are to actually inspect the cop's body language and expression. You'll react and imagine in response to large, easily identified, features of the picture, and you'll react and imagine as cheaply as possible.

Thinking is hard, and generally people try to avoid it. We speak, listen, read, and write in clichés and near-clichés, as much as possible.


  1. How did you get LEC from Least Cognitive Effort Principle. Ouch, brain hurt. I do tend to agree with your premise though, I believe pattern recognition is what most animals do.

    1. It appears that I expended slightly less than the minimum necessary Cognitive Effort! I will correct to LCE!

  2. Is it better to be young and stupid, or old and stupid? Asking for a friend.

  3. Congratulations, Mr. Molitor, you are now a Level 3 Curmudgeon! May I offer the Cognitive Reality Avoidance Principle (99% of all humans surveyed are happy with their CRAP perception?).


  4. "There's a guy on twitter who just started a photo newsletter, got 20,000 subscribers out of the gate, and the first three newsletters have been the most uninteresting, anodyne, drivel ever." Hmm, I think I know just the one.