Monthly Archives: February 2014

Need for Cognition

The topic for this post comes from what I discovered about Need for Cognition (NFC) during my Educational Psychology studies in late 2013. I found this topic area quite interesting and I wanted to share some of the research findings from the journal articles that I read.

What is Need for Cognition?

John Cacioppo and Richard Petty proposed that NFC was “the tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking” (1982, p.116). For Cacioppo and Petty, NFC was about the level of motivation towards cognitive activity (the process), rather than achieving cognitive clarity (the outcome). In addition, people high in NFC are characterised by active exploring minds that reach out and draw information from their environment.

Measuring NFC

According to Cacioppo and Petty, variations in individuals NFC were conceptualised as falling on a continuum from low to high need or, to put it another way, people who are cognitive misers to those who are chronic cognizers. The word ‘need’ in this context refers to a likelihood or tendency as opposed to a biological or sensory need. In order to measure one’s NFC, they developed the Need for Cognition Scale (1982). Across a series of studies, Cacioppo and Petty developed a 45-item NFC Scale and found that test anxiety and social desirability biases did not affect the outcome. Examples of items from the scale include:

I am very optimistic about my mental abilities

Learning new ways to think doesn’t excite me very much

I think primarily because I have to

Over time, shorter versions of the NFC Scale have been developed e.g. an 18-item scale which was used in several articles.

Several researchers have studied the relationship of NFC to other constructs:

NFC and Personality

In a study conducted by Fleischhauer, Enge, Brocke, Ullrich, Strobel & Strobel (2009), they investigated the relationship of NFC and personality. The five-factor model (FFM) of personality describes five broad dimensions of human personality, which are:

  1. Extraversion – the tendency to experience positive emotions, be assertive, sociable and talkative.
  2. Agreeableness – a disposition of compassion and co-operation.
  3. Conscientiousness – a tendency to show self-discipline, be organised and dependable.
  4. Neuroticism – the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily.
  5. Openness – being open to experience, adventure, unusual ideas and curiosity.

Results showed that “NFC is not only related to open-minded, goal orientated, conscientious ad emotionally stable behaviour but a general tendency to actively invest cognitive resources independent of context” (p.90).

NFC and Intelligence

Fleischhauer et. al. (2009) conducted a second study that investigated the relationship between NFC and intelligence. They examined NFC and fluid intelligence (gF) which is the ability to solve novel problems and also crystallised intelligence (gC) which is intelligence accumulated over a lifetime. The results showed positive correlations both gF and gC and higher correlations with gF than gC.

In another study into NFC and intelligence, Hill, Foster, Elliott, Shelton, McCain & Gouvier (2013) also found positive correlations between gF and gC.

In addition, Hill et. al. (2013) also examined the relationship between NFC and working memory (WM) which they define as the “cognitive ability to hold information in mind for a short period of time for the purpose of mental manipulation and processing” (p.23). WM has been linked to higher levels of general intelligence, particularly gF. However, this study found that NFC was not related to WM at all.

NFC and Complex Problem Solving

Nair, U. K. and Ramnarayan (2000) investigated the relationship between NFC and the ability to solve complex problems. They defined complex problems as “mostly non-routine and for which well-defined solutions do not exist” (p.307). The participants for this study were managers spanning seven-hierarchy levels and across six functional areas of a metal-processing plant.

They found that an increased NFC lead to more effectiveness in solving the complex problem and for those with higher NFC, problem solving became easier.

NFC and Decision-Making Competence

Carnevale, Inbar and Lerner (2011) wanted to find out if NFC and leadership experience were moderators of leaders susceptibility to bias when making decisions. They examined for dimensions of decision-making competence:

  • Susceptibility to framing which is when two equivalent problems produce a different response due to variations in the language used to present the problem.
  • Confidence calibration which is the extent to which confidence matches accuracy across various judgements.
  • Consistency in risk perception which is the way in which people perceive the level of risk when making decisions.
  • Sensitivity to sunk costs which is the amount of willingness to continue with a course of action once resources are invested.

Results showed that leaders high in NFC were less affected by task framing and less swayed by sunk costs than those low in NFC. There was no correlation with better confidence or more consistent risk perception.

What causes variations in NFC from person to person?

In reviewing the journal articles that I have found many of them look to examine and measure adults in order to determine their level of NFC on the scale i.e. somewhere between low and high. The articles do not necessarily investigate how people developed their level of NFC.

How this motivation is developed or is where is may have come from remains unclear. However, Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein and Jarvis (1996) suggest that intrinsic motivation is an antecedent (a preceding circumstance or event) to assist with understanding NFC and literature on intrinsic motivation would be a useful starting point. They also suggest that motivation towards learning via observation and experience and an ability to cope with problems through reasoning could be developed in childhood years.

One theory of motivation that may be useful in examining NFC is Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory (SDT). According to SDT, engaging in activities for their inherent satisfaction and that are enjoyable are said to be intrinsically motivating (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Unlike other motivation theories, extrinsic motivation (engaging in activities that lead to a separable outcome) is not a single construct; it exists in four distinct forms according to the extent to which the motivation for the behaviour emanates from one’s self. In other words, extrinsic motivation can be viewed by the degree to which it is controlling of one’s behaviour (external) or allows one’s behaviour to be more autonomous (internal).

SDT proposes that all humans require the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs (Ryan and Deci, 2000), namely:

  • Competence (a sense of being able to do something i.e. being competent),
  • Autonomy (a sense of being in control and having freedom), and
  • Relatedness (a sense of being associated or connected to others).

Contexts that satisfy all three basic needs will help support people’s actions, resulting in more sustained motivation over time and positive outcomes. Therefore, conditions that assist with the internalisation of motivation towards engaging in cognitive activity can help develop need for cognition in individuals. Cacioppo et al. suggest that the development of NFC may be enhanced by “the construction of contingencies that foster both cognitive development and feelings of enjoyment, competence and mastery thinking” (1996, p.246). This is consistent with the SDT approach to motivation.

What are the implications of NFC for learning and development?

In terms of NFC and learning and development, the research into the implications is virtually non-existent. However, there may be benefits from the creation of conditions that stimulate individual’s intrinsic motivation for thinking and reflecting. All too often, courses are streamlined to reduce time away from working and while necessary could be a source of frustration for those high in NFC. In order to cater for these individuals, perhaps additional material or access to additional resources should be provided so those high in NFC can still have their need satisfied.



Cacioppo, J. T. and Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 42(1), 116-131.

Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., Feinstein, J. A., Blair, W. and Jarvis, G. (1996). Dispositional differences in cognitive motivation: The life and times of individuals varying in need for cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 197-253.

Carnevale, J. J., Inbar, Y. and Lerner, J. S. (2011). Individual differences in need for cognition and decision-making competence among leaders. Personality and Individual Differences. 51, 274-278.

Fleischhauer, M., Enge, S., Brocke, B., Ullrich, J., Strobel, A and Strobel, A. (2009). Same or different? Clarifying the relationship of need for cognition to personality and intelligence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36(1), 82-96.

Fleischhauer, M., Strobel, A., Enge, S. and Strobel, A. (2013). Assessing implicit cognitive motivation: developing and testing an implicit association test to measure need for cognition. European Journal of Personality. 27, 15-29.

Hill, B. D., Foster, J. D., Elliott, E. M., Shelton, J. T., McCain, J. and Gouvier, D. (2013). Need for cognition is related to higher general intelligence, fluid intelligence, and crystallized intelligence, but not working memory. Journal of Research in Personality. 47, 22-25.

Nair, U. K. and Ramnarayan, S. (2000). Individual differences in need for cognition and complex problem solving. Journal of Research in Personality. 34, 305-328.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 25, 54-67.


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