Low-Effort vs. High-Effort Thinking: Advantages & Disadvantages

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  • 0:05 Thinking
  • 0:41 Low-Effort Thinking
  • 1:41 Low-Effort Thinking:…
  • 2:46 High-Effort Thinking
  • 3:47 High-Effort Thinking:…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
Our cognitive wheels are always in motion, even if we don't realize it. In this lesson, we discuss thinking and differentiate between low-effort and high-effort thinking. We also discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type of thinking.


Most of us don't think too much about thinking; we just do it. Yet, we think all day long. We make decisions, remember facts, apply knowledge, and so on. We think even when we don't realize it, as our brain processes the information we take in every second. Psychologists separate thoughts into many different categories, but every type of thought can be categorized under low-effort or high-effort thinking. Let's look at each type of thinking and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Low-Effort Thinking

One type or category of thinking is low-effort thinking, which is thinking that is automatic and involuntary. This is social cognition that takes very little to no effort. When walking into a room with a dozen people, you can easily tell the difference between a business meeting and a toga party. You don't have to stand at the doorway and carefully observe every detail to identify what's going on. Every automatic judgment we make, such as this one, without consciously considering alternatives, involves low-effort thinking.

Routine activities, such as cutting grass, use low-effort thinking.
Low Effort Thinking

When we perform a task on autopilot, we are also engaged in low-effort thinking. When we ride a bike, for example, we don't usually think about every little movement it takes to stay on the bike and keep it moving forward. When we're driving and the stoplight turns red, we slam on the brakes, often without consciously deciding to do so.

Low-Effort Thinking: Advantages and Disadvantages

There are certainly advantages to low-effort thinking. For one, it saves us a great deal of time and effort, so we don't have to spend the entire day thinking hard about everything we experience. Low-effort thinking can occur in the background of our minds while we actively think about and/or do something else. Have you ever been driving on a road you've driven dozens of times and spaced out while contemplating your day? Even though you might have been actively thinking about that conversation you had earlier, you were still able to use low-effort thinking to steer, maintain your speed, etc.

Most of the time, low-effort thinking serves us well and helps us size up a new situation or information quickly and accurately. However, because we don't control low-effort thinking, it can get us into trouble. For example, it can lead us to make false assumptions or even control a racial bias that we aren't aware of.

High-Effort Thinking

Though a great deal of daily life requires little cognitive effort, other things take a great deal more thought. For example, most people carefully consider which college to attend, what to wear to their wedding, or which car to buy. These decisions involve high-effort thinking - thinking that is controlled and intentional. This is social cognition that takes a great deal of effort. When you are engaged in high-effort thinking, you are fully aware that you are thinking.

First learning how to ride a bike requires high-effort thinking.
High Effort Thinking

When we learn something new, we have to carefully think about the step-by-step process that we perform. When we first learned how to ride a bike, for example, the process seemed complicated. At the time, our thinking and behavior was carefully controlled, so we were engaged in high-effort thinking. Eventually, the process became automatic, and now, we can perform the task easily and with little effort.

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