Lightening the cognitive load

A longtime colleague and friend of mine used to love to say  “Let’s just make this easy for them” whenever we discussed an upcoming meeting. I think I winced the first few times I heard it. It didn’t seem like much of a negotiation strategy… at least, that is, until he helped me appreciate how powerful it can be to manipulate “cognitive load.”

It’s a fairly straightforward principle  —  cognitive load is the level of mental energy you expend to interpret a situation and act on it. Because our “working memory,” the part of our brain that powers conscious thought, is limited to only 4-5 pieces of information at any given time… the lower the cognitive load, the easier and faster a decision can be made.

A simple arithmetic problem has lower cognitive load than a complex exponential equation. Like juggling with only two hands, you necessarily have to put some parts of the equation down so you can pick up others into focus. You can also imagine a more abstract example: coming to an intersection with a single turn option versus arriving at a subway platform with countless pathways to maneuver.

It is easy to appreciate how different an experience feels when it requires low cognitive load, but as a “supplier” of an experience, it is often overlooked how much agency you have in the outcome and how best to assess the trade-off required.

The lower the cognitive load, the easier and faster a decision can be made.

The trade-off essentially boils down to the time and energy spent to lower cognitive load, in exchange for increased probability in the desired outcome. The more time you spend making it easier for the recipient, the higher likelihood they decide in your favor.

The irony is that it’s essentially just a shift in cognitive load from the “user” to the “supplier.” What is easier for them becomes more challenging for you to work out on their behalf. Sometimes it means going out of your way to simplify a set of choices; other times it is about tailoring or contextualizing an experience for specific needs:

Narrower decision criteria. A revealing study last year showed that when presenting NYC taxi riders with pre-set tip amounts for fares (20 percent, 25 percent and 30 percent), riders tipped an astonishing 22 percent on average versus 10 percent before that. The effort to make out an appropriate tip based on a fare isn’t much, but most find it easier to click on the available options than think through the calculation. Uber takes this one step further and assigns an automatic amount that you need not ever consider, a very significant part of what makes the service feel so seamless.

Less checkout friction. Unsurprisingly, e-commerce is littered with examples, as the friction removed lowers the threshold to purchase, which directly translates into revenue. So many of the elements of the modern check-out process are designed with cognitive load in mind — from  eliminating lengthy scrolls (so you don’t have to remember what you input farther up the page) to smoother input fields (where the ZIP code is asked first, then city, state and country are automatically populated) and even scientific analysis on the optimal number of options for a given question (the magical number 7, plus or minus 2).

The extreme example here is Amazon Prime / 1 Click Ordering, which is a cognitive load scheme masked in a loyalty program. It turns out consumers find the exercise of weighing a delivery charge for a given purchase a prohibitive task  —  Amazon completely alleviates that.

Avoiding emotional choices. In 2003, two social researchers uncovered very significant differences in the percentage of people in different countries who pledge to donate their organs after they die. The lower countries averaged close to 15 percent, whereas the higher ones closer to 99 percent. Initially attributed to religious or societal country biases, the researchers discovered it was actually the difference in what the default option was on the DMV form (opt-in versus opt-out). From psychologist Dan Ariely: “This is a hard emotional decision about what will happen to our bodies after we die and what effect it will have on our those close to us. It is because of the difficulty and the emotionality of these decisions that they just don’t know what to do so they adopt the default option.”

Opportunities to use cognitive load surface in everything from product features to day-to-day communication.

Tiered decision making. When negotiating a transaction, there is almost always someone else within the organization (usually more senior) with whom you’re not currently speaking who will ultimately weigh in on the decision. That person usually has different biases, incentives and questions in mind. Arming the contact with the questions you can anticipate they will later be asked lowers the cognitive load for the intermediary (and potentially makes them look smart in their internal process).

In startup financing, it is about knowing the difference between the common market questions an associate VC might ask and the nuanced industry-specific questions her partner might wisely zero in on.

Creating the context. Requests for an introduction almost always place an expectation on someone to craft a new message and go through the thought exercise of clarifying the context about why the connection is being made and how it may be mutually valuable. The easier alternative will always be to ignore, delay or decline the request, so reducing the thought process helps. Rare but effective: sending a separate note that includes the context that is immediately forward-able.

Opportunities to use cognitive load surface in everything from product features to day-to-day communication. It’s not always worth it to work out how to reduce it, but it is a remarkable tool when you can appreciate the influence you actually wield over a decision that’s not your own. The key is to assess the true dynamics of the trade-off and which factors effectively compress the load.