Within social psychology, cognitive miser is an umbrella theory of social cognition that brings together previous research on heuristics and attributional biases. The theory suggests that humans, valuing their mental processing resources, find different ways to save time and effort when negotiating the social world. The term cognitive miser, first introduced by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor in Social Cognition (1991), represents an important step in the evolution of social cognition theory and has been influential in other social sciences including but not exclusive to economics and political science.
The Naïve Scientist and Attribution Theory
Before Fiske and Taylor's cognitive miser theory, the predominant model of social cognition was the naïve scientist. First proposed in 1958 by Fritz Heider in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, this theory holds that humans think and act with dispassionate rationality whilst engaging in detailed and nuanced thought processes for both complex and routine actions. In this way, humans were thought to think like scientists, albeit naïve ones, measuring and analyzing the world around them. Applying this framework to human thought processes, naïve scientists seek the consistency and stability that comes from a coherent view of the world and need for environmental control.
In order to meet these needs, naïve scientists make attributions. Thus, attribution theory emerged from the study of the ways in which individuals assess causal relationships and mechanisms. Through the study of causal attributions, led by Harold Kelley and Bernard Weiner amongst others, social psychologists began to observe that subjects regularly demonstrate several attributional biases including but not limited to the fundamental attribution error.
The study of attributions had two effects: it created further interest in testing the naive scientist and opened up a new wave of social psychology research that questioned its explanatory power. This second effect helped to lay the foundation for Fiske and Taylor's cognitive miser.
Much of the cognitive miser theory is built upon work done on heuristics, most notably Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman results published in a series of influential articles. Heuristics can be defined as the, “judgmental shortcuts that generally get us where we need to go – and quickly – but at the cost of occasionally sending us off course.”  In their work, Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated that people rely upon different types of heuristics or mental short cuts in order to save time and mental energy. However, in relying upon heuristics instead of detailed analysis, like the information processing employed by Heider's naïve scientist, biased information processing is more likely to occur. Some of these heuristics include the representativeness heuristic (the inclination to assign specific attributes to an individual the more he/she matches the prototype of that group), availability heuristic (the inclination to judge the likelihood of something occurring because of the ease of thinking of examples of that event occurring) and anchoring heuristic (the inclination to overweight the importance and influence of an initial piece of information). The frequency with which Kahneman and Tversky and other attribution researchers found the individuals employed mental shortcuts to make decisions and assessments laid important groundwork for the overarching idea that individuals and their minds act efficiently instead of analytically.
The Cognitive Miser Theory
The wave of research on attributional biases done by Kahneman, Tversky and others effectively signaled the death knell for the dominance of Heider's naïve scientist within social psychology. Fiske and Taylor, building upon the prevalence of heuristics in human cognition, offered their theory of the cognitive miser. It is, in many ways, a unifying theory which suggests that humans engage in economically prudent thought processes, instead of acting like scientists who rationally weigh costs and benefits, test hypothesis, and update expectations based upon the results of the experiments that are our everyday actions. In other words, humans are more inclined to act as cognitive misers using mental short cuts to make assessments and decisions, about issues and ideas about which they know very little as well as issues of great salience. Fiske and Taylor argue that acting as cognitive misers is rational due to the sheer volume and intensity of information and stimuli humans intake In addition to streamlining cognition in complicated, analytical tasks, cognitive misers are also at work when dealing with unfamiliar as well as issues of great salience.
The implications for this theory are profound and raise important questions about both cognition and human behavior. In addition to streamlining cognition in complicated, analytical tasks, cognitive misers are also at work when dealing with unfamiliar issues as well as issues of great importance. One can look to voting behavior in democracies as an arena in which the cognitive miser is at work. Acting as a cognitive miser should lead those with expertise in an area to more efficient information processing and streamlined decision making. However, as Lau and Redlawsk note, acting as cognitive miser who employs heuristics can have very different results for high-formation and low-information voters. They write, "...cognitive heuristics are at times employed by almost all voters, and that they are particularly likely to be used when the choice situation facing voters is complex...heuristic use generally increases the probability of a correct vote by political experts but decreases the probability of a correct vote by novices." In democracies, where no vote is weighted more or less because of the expertise behind its casting, low-information voters, acting as cognitive misers, can have broad and potentially deleterious choices for a society.
Updates and later research
Later models suggest that the cognitive miser and the naïve scientist create two poles of social cognition that are too monolithic. Instead, Fiske, Taylor, and Arie W. Kruglanski and other social psychologists offer an alternative explanation of social cognition: the motivated tactician. According to this theory, people employ either shortcuts or thoughtful analysis based upon the context and salience of a particular issue. In other words, this theory suggests that humans are, in fact, both naive scientists and cognitive misers.
- Confirmation bias
- Motivated reasoning
- Bounded rationality
- Motivated Tactician
- Social Psychology
- Social Cognition
- Human behavior
- Representativeness heuristic
- Availability Heuristic
- Anchoring Heuristic
- Amos Tversky
- Daniel Kahneman
- Susan Fiske
- Shelley Taylor
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- Lau, Richard R.; David P. Redlawsk (4). "Advantages and Disadvantages of Cognitive Heuristics in Political Decision Making". American Journal of Political Science 45: 951–971. JSTOR 2669334.
- Fiske, S.T. (1992). Thinking is for doing: Portraits of social cognition from Daguerrotypes to Laserphoto. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 877-839.