Cognitive Miser

Shelley E. Taylor

Cognitive miser is a term which refers to the idea that only a small amount of information is actively perceived by individuals when making decisions, and many cognitive shortcuts (such as drawing on prior information and knowledge) are used instead to attend to relevant information and arrive at a decision. The term was coined in 1984 by Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor in an early book on social cognition (thinking related to interpersonal relationships). In the area of psychology, perception is one of the base fields. It is defined as how one views the world, but is not necessarily an accurate interpretation of it.

A cognitive miser, therefore, refers to how people cannot possibly assimilate all the information they are bombarded with by the world. The mind will either take in relevant information into the conscious mind, or information that may be relevant to the subconscious mind. The information taken into the subconscious will later undergo an internal screening. Anything useful will be reinforced with ties to other areas where it is of use, anything not of use will typically be forgotten.

The cognitive miser idea is fundamental in the information-processing model of social cognition because it would be enormously taxing on individuals’ to attend to all information in the world scientifically (i.e. with a high degree of analysis), with individuals becoming overwhelmed by the confusion and complexity of the social stimuli that they are attending to. As a result, people ignore large amounts of information from the social world, and in doing so, make rapid inferences about information, and use categories to organize information. People use heuristics, which are mental shortcuts, in order to make sense of the world around them.

These mental shortcuts allow people to categorize learned information and as a result solve problems, make decisions, and understand the world through schemas. As a result, people aim to expend the minimum amount of cognitive resources as required. Stereotypes are an example of cognitive miserliness, as people assign different stimuli, such as people of certain races, to particular categories with certain characteristics so that they can attend to just the category, rather than the individual when engaged in social situations. As of late, this idea has received lessening support from the field of social psychology, with the metaphor of people being motivated tacticians instead gaining traction.

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