Cognitive Complexity: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:00 Background Example of…
  • 0:50 What Is Cognitive Complexity?
  • 2:01 Uses of Cognitive…
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education.

This lesson discusses the concept of cognitive complexity and how it relates to different systems. The concept is defined, and the theory of cognitive complexity is examined as it relates to such systems as business, computer science, and artificial intelligence.

Background Example of Complexity

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson arrive at a crime scene, and Watson is constantly amazed at how Holmes can see clues where there are seemingly none. The dirt on the bottom of a shoe is from a specific lane somewhere in London. He sees what appears to be cigar ash, sniffs it for a second, then pronounces what type of cigar it is from and which shops sell it. Then he sees a bloody mark behind the dead man's ear and deduces that he was hung somewhere else and deposited at a fake crime scene. By the end of his examination of the crime scene, Sherlock has a pretty good idea who the killer is. The bobbies from Scotland Yard and Dr. Watson are left in the dark until Sherlock points out the 'obvious.'

How can Holmes confound not only the criminals but other detectives as well?

What Is Cognitive Complexity?

The difference between the two detectives was that one was able, through experience and training, to detect clues where none were obvious. This is one of the marks of something called cognitive complexity. In psychology, cognitive complexity is how well people perceive things. It has to do with how a person looks at events, structures, or experiences and how correctly an individual analyzes based on how complex their cognition, or thinking, structures have become.

For example, an individual needs a sidewalk from their back door to their front drive built. A friend tells the individual that all he has to do is level the ground, set some forms, and pour the sidewalk. But, being wiser than that, he hires a contractor to do the work. The contractor does all that friend said to do, but he also looks at the grade ground, the sidewalk's relative position to the house and the frost line estimate for the area. He also looks at what the weather is supposed to be for the next few days to make sure that the concrete will have time to cure. Cognitive complexity is about using more mental structures to determine the nuances of an activity that another person, using less complex structures, would not consider.

Uses of Cognitive Complexity Theory

Computers were originally designed to make mundane computations more quickly. The first computers filled buildings and helped scientists sort data sets. But the idea was always to design a machine that could think like a human and complete complex tasks more quickly and efficiently. Computer scientists use the idea of cognitive complexity to design computers that think more like humans.

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