Cognitive miser

Cognitive miser is a social psychology theory that 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 was first used by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor in Social Cognition (1991).[1]


Before Fiske and Taylor's theory of the cognitive miser, the predominant paradigm of social cognition within social psychology was that of the naive scientist. First proposed in 1958 by Fritz Heider in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations,[2] the theory holds that humans think and act with rationality whilst engaging in detailed and nuanced thought processes for both complex and everyday actions. In this way, humans behave like scientists, albeit naive ones, analyzing the world around them. Applying this framework to human thought processes, naive scientists seek the consistency and stability that comes from 1) coherent view of the world and 2) need for environmental control.[3]

Departing from Heider's hypothesis and attribution theory, Fiske and Taylor hypothesized that humans, instead of acting like scientists, rationally weighing costs and benefits, testing hypothesis, and updating beliefs based upon results of the experiments that are everyday actions, think economically. That is to say that humans choose certain activities on which to expend mental resources through deep analysis (as naive scientists) but, by and large, act as cognitive misers using mental short cuts (heuristics) to make assessments and decisions. Fiske and Taylor argue that acting as cognitive misers is rational due to the sheer volume and intensity of information and stimuli humans take in.

Key Assumptions of the Cognitive Miser Theory

The first key assumption of this theory is, people do not use all available information to make decisions or come to conclusions about issues, including new technologies or scientific discoveries.[1] Instead people rely on heuristics and cognitive shortcuts such as religious beliefs, media portrayals, and morals in order to form judgments and opinions about issues that they have little knowledge about.[4]

The second key assumption in the cognitive miser theory is that it describes overall social patterns. For the majority of the general public the cognitive miser theory can be used because many people have low information levels that require cognitive shortcuts to be made to make decisions on complex topics.The cognitive miser model may not be true for audiences that are heavily interested in the issue at hand. These people gain as much information as possible before making an opinion or decision on a topic.[1][4]

Updates and later research

A later revision by Fiske and Taylor (1991) suggested that motivated tacticians should replace the idea of the cognitive miser model. This update stated that people are sometimes motivated and are fully engaged thinkers who have multiple cognitive strategies available and chooses among them based on goals, motives, and needs.[1]

In 2004, Dietram A. Scheufele and Bruce V. Lewenstein conducted a study on knowledge and attitudes toward nanotechnology that shows how people make decisions or come to conclusions about developing technology. The results of the study found the cognitive miser model was still applicable in today’s society even after being conceptualized two decades earlier in Fiske and Taylor’s book Social Cognition.[4]

See also


  • 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.
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