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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Deep thoughts on the 'need for cognition' metric

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today I was thinking about someone I interact with on-line, contemplating what I find annoying about him. He's not a bad sort, really, but he never seems to bother to get his facts straight and his comments on any topic are vapid.

Then, mousing around the Internet to some blogs I only occasionally visit, I found the answer. Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, on his blog, Rough Type, introduced me to the concept of the Need for Cognition metric. It measures how much you like to think.

You see, although I score well on tests and am generally considered a bit of a wonk by my friends, I've never thought my brain was particularly powerful, but I do seem to think more often than most people, collecting information like an intellectual magpie and entertaining myself with finding new connections between disparate facts. Give me a test, and there's a good chance I've thought about a lot of stuff on it. In addition, if you practice anything, you get better at it, and practicing solving problems pays off on many types of tests.

Carr brings up the need for cognition metric in regard to a study of Facebook use:

The study revealed a significant negative correlation between social network site (SNS) activity and NFC scores. "The key finding," the authors write, "is that NFC played an important role in SNS use. Specifically, high NFC individuals tended to use SNS less often than low NFC people, suggesting that effortful thinking may be associated with less social networking among young people." Moreover, "high NFC participants were significantly less likely to add new friends to their SNS accounts than low or medium NFC individuals." 

More broadly, social networking, whether by Facebook or in real life, may involve a different set of priorities than deep thinking, which might be why the best students are often "nerds" who don't become popular by networking.

This does not mean that those high need for cognition people are superior, any more than the social pecking order in high school reflects the real worth of the students in it. Society needs both deep thinkers and networkers, and different people develop different skills, which is why we don't all have to be geniuses and we don't all have to be skilled at organizing parties, social or political.

But one consequence of this is that in some settings, such as Internet forums, some people will use them for social interaction while others hope to hash out the intellectual issues. I still won't bother to read the posts of the fellow who irritates me, but I'll better understand what he's doing commenting on things he doesn't bother to know much about. While I'm saying, "let's think this through," he's just saying "Hi there!"


  1. Some good points here. I get a few empathetic comments on my blog and lots of "hi there"s. Even the "hi there"s at least tell me someone is reading what I so thoughtfully write!

  2. Yes, and any interaction between two or more people can involve different motives for each person. Tough to remember, sometimes, that what you value isn't what others value.