Cognitive Ease: The Secret of The Pleasant

This week Microsoft released an app called Pix for iPhone. It is a camera application for taking photos and videos and people who used it believe they get a better picture quality compared to Apple’s native Camera app. But what is a better picture quality for a digital camera? Isn’t it true that the pictures we take end up being RGB pixels anyway?

We humans tend to believe that we can qualitatively measure and compare almost anything, but the truth is that our decisions are not always rational. In fact, we are heavily biased towards the appealing and the way we find something pleasant is the outcome of a mechanism we are all biologically wired with called cognitive ease.

Cognitive ease is a measure of how hard your brain is working trying to process a situation. It’s measured from “Easy” for when you are scrolling Facebook up and down to “Strained” for when you are solving a Lagrange Polynomial. Things that are generally true, effortless and familiar makes us feel good because they put our cognitive system to ease.

Interestingly, the stimulus to cognitive ease can also be artificially created. For example, by repeating something over and over again, you can create a sense of familiarity and overall feeling of goodness. We humans evolved to perceive repeated stimuli more favorably. Anything novel was a potential threat but if after repeated exposure nothing bad happened, it became comfortable and safe. In fact, this technique is one of the cores of show business industry. No wonder why you keep seeing pictures of those celebrities everywhere you go.

The concept of the familiar things leading our decisions in life is inevitable. Studies show that men are more likely to marry a woman that has the same characteristics of their own mother. The latter is also true for women marrying men like their own fathers. The same concept is in the core of the advertising industry. The more something is repeated, the more it starts feeling true.

… good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells. —Donald J. Trump, The Art of The Deal, 1987

Now back to the image example and why some people believe they have better picture quality with the new app. It turns out that images with higher contrast are perceived with more cognitive ease making them feel good. When you are looking at a picture or a text, the more outlined, bold and contrasted the objects are in the picture, the less your brain is strained figuring them out. Therefore, they are handled with cognitive ease and are pleasant to you. This is exactly what most of the Instagram and Prisma filters do to your photos.

Cognitive ease can help us be more creative. The fact that we can make intuitive decisions on daily basis without feeling alerted all the time makes us happier. However, there are things in life that require cognitive strain simply because the intuitive choices are sometimes misleading. We cannot be spontaneous in areas that require analytical and counter-intuitive thinking. That probably explains why scientists and smart people aside from their social skills usually seem to be sad and skeptical.

I recommend the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman on this topic and more insights on Behavioral Psychology.