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Mindfulness & Mindlessness

Richard Petty & John Cacioppo, at Ohio State University, have described what is to date one of the most fundamental differences in receptivity to an influence attempt: the target will respond either centrally or peripherally. Shelly Chaiken's research is similar (New York University), although she uses different terms: she says subjects will respond systematically or heuristically. In a sentence, this means that the target of influence will respond either mindfully or mindlessly.

This fundamental division requires some background explanation, so you might want to print this page now and read it offline.

Systematic vs. HeuristicHuman brains are vastly underpowered to deal with the pace of modern living. Thinking is their job, but they don't really want to do it (reminding me of some employees I've had). You see, you are the owner of a hunter-gatherer brain, which was just the machine for the job of hunting and gathering, which we humans did to survive thousands of years ago.

But now, you must use that same model brain to set your VCR, create a computer spreadsheet, read a map, and figure out how to set your watch once you land at the London airport. You might even call on it to speak a foreign language, take a course in biology, perform a math calculation, or repair an electronic circuit. It's like using an old Apple II computer--one of the first widely-available home computers--to perform handwriting and voice recognition! Your geriatric Apple II wouldn't like that task any more than your brain likes deliberating over which brand of laundry detergent to buy as you rush through the supermarket. Hence, humans are cognitive misers, to borrow a term from the noted influence researcher Ellen Langer. We humans conserve cognitive energy whenever we can.

GearsConsiderable evidence has amassed showing that humans don't like to think. Here's an example. Cognitive scientists were interested in the types of brain waves emitted by a person who was thinking hard-- as when a person attempts to solve a math problem. They found that, under such conditions, humans emitted a distinctive pattern of brain waves. Those waves were nearly duplicated by asking subjects to thrust their hands in buckets of ice water. Your brain has a similar response to thinking hard as it does to physical pain! Your brain doesn't like to do it, and avoids it when it can.

Thinking hard burns about three times more calories than does idling. So how do we avoid effortful thinking? By finding shortcuts that work most of the time. For instance: let's say you're shopping for a stair climber, because you want the convenience of working out at home. You enter a sports store and start looking at the different models. Some have what look to be shock absorbers, some have chains and sprockets, some have cables and pulleys, others have levers that balance on a fulcrum. Which is best? Which will stand up to the wear and tear of your vigorous workouts? you wonder. At this point, you have a choice. You can process centrally--you can go to the library and find a book on mechanical engineering. With several months of concerted effort and concentration, you may be able come to your own conclusions about which mechanical system is best. Or you can process peripherally--find some sort of shortcut.

Sale TagVarious shortcuts might entail 1) asking the salesperson which is best; 2) bringing along an opinionated friend; 3) choosing a stair stepper based on the color; 4) choosing a stair stepper based on your recognition of a brand name; 5) choose a stair stepper based on the attractiveness of the model in the advertisement ("She looks gorgeous! Look at how small her waist is."); 6) deciding to purchase the stair stepper marked "SALE;" 6) deciding that the most expensive model is the best model ("Why would they charge so much if it weren't really good?"). And so you give your brain a break by relying on a quasi-thinking strategy called a "heuristic." Heuristics work pretty well most of the time.

But sometimes you have to think in order to survive. You had to think hard when you took the LSAT or the GMAT or the GRE tests-- because you were attempting to improve your station in life and your ability to survive at a comfortable level. You had to think when you invested your savings (unless you, like I, opted for the mindless approach of paying someone else to think about it), and you had to think about what could be wrong when your car broke down on the freeway (unless you once again decided to skip the learning and thinking and simply called a mechanic). Sometimes, you just have to think in order to get yourself out of a jam or improve your state in life.

You may have noticed that people who think for a living (lawyers, doctors, investors, consultants) are paid a lot of money. That's because they are doing something for you that you'd rather not do for yourself--learn, memorize, and think!

Do you notice a pattern here? We tend to idle, even when we should be thinking. One of my colleagues, Dr. Gregory Neidert, says that we humans are running our brains at idle about 90% to 95% of the time. Only when a topic is important to us and actually requires effortful thought do we engage our brains and make them do some real work. The rest of the time, we're coasting, baby.

Back to Petty & Cacioppo and Chaiken's basic division. They argue correctly that people will process incoming information in two entirely different ways. We humans will think carefully about a decision when it is 1) important to us and 2) we have the ability to think.

For instance, I process centrally when I am ready to purchase a computer. A computer is an expensive, important purchase. So I compare features, operating systems, capacities. I deliberate for weeks before purchasing. And I will need some uninterrupted thinking time to come to a decision. Under these circumstances, the way in which the argument is presented becomes very important. A high quality argument from a computer manufacturer may include: a point by point comparison of features, benchmark speed tests, a list of compatible software, and so on. (Interestingly, some evidence shows that when people make large, complex decisions--when they most need to think centrally--the task may become overwhelming and decision makers once again revert to simple heuristic strategies. "Why did you buy all these expensive options on your new car?" "Because the salesman said I could buy them at this price only at the time I bought the car." But that's a topic for another time . . .)

But when it comes to purchasing a box of laundry soap, I will spend little time thinking about it. I'll probably purchase the first one that has the words "unscented" printed on the box. Or perhaps I will use some other heuristic that will allow me to choose quickly, like price or brand recognition. And lest you think heuristics are only used to decide about unimportant things-- think again. Even laundry detergent gets costly. Over the course of a lifetime, I calculate I'll spend more on laundry detergent than I would on a new computer.

To learn more about mindless behavior and persuasion, proceed to the "Mindless" page. (My students can learn more about mindful behavior and persuasion by entering the URL for the "Mindful" page.)

Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.

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