Cognitive Miser

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The term “Cognitive Miser” was coined by Fiske and Taylor (1984) to refer to the general idea that individuals frequently rely on simple and time efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions. Cognitive miserliness arguably occurs not out of laziness, but out of necessity and efficiency (Fiske and Taylor, 1984). Rather than rationally and objectively evaluating new information, the cognitive miser assigns new information to categories that are easy to process mentally. These categories arise from prior information, including schemas, scripts and other knowledge structures, that has been stored in memory and storage of new information does not require much cognitive energy. The cognitive miser, thus, tends not to stray far from his or her established beliefs when considering new information (Fisk and Taylor, 1984).

Examples of Cognitive Miserliness

Though the methods cognitive misers rely on are efficient and can be effective in many situations, they also lend themselves to inaccuracy. Research in this area has focused on the ways cognitive miserliness negatively impacts social cognition, including through the increased use of stereotypes and heuristics. (Operario and Fiske, 1999)


Stereotypes are simplistic ways of categorizing others (Macrae, Milne, and Bodenhausen, 1994). Instead of spending time trying to understand the complex nature of individuals, people instead choose to group people into preconceived categories. A study by Macrae, Milne, and Bodenhausen (1994) showed that participants performed better on a memory task when using stereotypes. Participants in this study were given the labels doctor, artist, skinhead, and estate agent. They were then given stereotype consistent and stereotype inconsistent personality traits for each label. The participants remembered more stereotype consistent personality traits than stereotype inconsistent personality traits. This demonstrates that when using stereotypes, people are more proficient in other cognitive tasks. In this study, the stereotypes made processing easier and facilitated memory. This simplification of people into categories makes for processing easier, but can also lead to faulty decisions. Stereotypes are used by the cognitive miser because they involve easy stimulus processing instead of more effortful determinations.


Heuristics are mental shortcuts taken in order to lessen the cognitive load that decision making requires (Tversky and Kahneman, 1973). Research by Tversky and Kahneman (1973) and others indicates that people have particular patterns of thinking that they rely on strategies to make decisions easily. The Availability Heuristic is the tendency for people to make a judgment of the frequency of a phenomenon based on how easily an example can be thought of (Tversky and Kahneman, 1973). Tversky and Kahneman (1973) captured this tendency in their 1973 study, when participants rated words beginning with the letter “r” more probable than words with “r” in the third position simply because words that begin with “r” can be thought of more easily. In actuality, there are more words with “r” in the third position. These shortcuts relate to the cognitive miser perspective because they capture the idea that people routinely make decisions using as little effort as possible.

Alternative Explanations/ Critique

The main critique of the cognitive miser perspective is that it fails to explain when people choose to make more effortful determinations on stimuli. Other models have been proposed that offer explanations that encompass the times when individuals choose more detailed processing. (Operario and Fiske, 1999)

Principle of Least Effort

Gordon Allport’s Principle of Least Effort says that people do not have enough time or energy to have differentiated opinions about everything. Rather, they exert more effort to things that are important to them, but for other things they will rely on superficial explorations and generalizations. This perspective is similar to the cognitive miser perspective and is also used as an explanation for why stereotypes exist. (Allport, 1979)

The Motivated Tactician

This term was also coined by Fiske and Taylor. It is defined as “a fully engaged thinker who has multiple cognitive strategies available and chooses among them based on goals, motives, and needs.” This approach does not dismiss the cognitive miser approach, it simply accounts for the instances when individuals choose to think more carefully (Operario and Fiske, 1999).

Dual Process Model

The Dual Process Model (Baumeister and Bushman, 2008) suggests that there are two modes of processing. One occurs automatically and is highly efficient, and the other is conscious, slow, and requires more cognitive effort. The time saving habits identified in the cognitive miser model could be likened to automatic processing. However, the conscious component of the dual processing model acknowledges the use of in depth processing (Baumeister and Bushman, 2008).


Allport, G. W. (1979). The nature of prejudice /. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Baumeister, R. F., Bushman, B. J. (2008). Social psychology and human nature /. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.

Fiske, S. T., Taylor, S. E. (1984). Social cognition /. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Macrae, N.C., Milne, A.B., Bodenhausen, G.V., (1994) Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66(1) 37-47

Operario, D., Fiske S.T. (1999) Social Cognition Permeates Social Psychology: Motivated Mental Processes Guide the Study of Human Social Behavior. Asian Journal of Social Psychology (2) 63-78

Tversky, A., Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 1973, 5, 207-232.

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