What is Need for Cognition Personality Trait

Need for Cognition

Need for cognition (NFC) is a personality trait reflecting the extent to which individuals engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive activities. It represents a facet of personality dedicated to one’s willingness to embrace and process complex ideas and situations.

Those high in need for cognition exhibit a strong cognitive motivation, often seeking situations that challenge their intellect and preferring intricate problems over simplistic tasks. Conversely, individuals with lower need for cognition may shy away from such activities, preferring more straightforward or less cognitively demanding experiences.

In psychology, NFC is measured by specific scales, which delve into the extent of an individual’s motivation to think. The concept of NC does not inherently gauge intelligence but rather gauges the enjoyment and tendency toward cognitive efforts. The importance of NC lies in its correlation with various behavioral outcomes, particularly in educational and social contexts.

Concept Foundations

The idea of such a disposition was present fairly early on in the history of social and personality psychology, in work by Abraham Maslow, Solomon Asch, Gardner Murphy and Harry Harlow.  In their 1955 work on individual differences in cognitive motivation, it was Cohen, Stotland, and Wolfe who identified it as a “need for cognition.”

They defined it as “the individual’s need to organize his experience meaningfully,” the “need to structure relevant situations in meaningful, integrated ways,” and the “need to understand and make reasonable the experiential world.”

They reasoned that if this “need” was not met, it would cause “feelings of tension and deprivation” that would prompt “active efforts to structure the situation and increase understanding,” However, the specific events that arouse and satisfy the need may differ. Cohen suggested that even in controlled contexts, persons with high NFC see ambiguity and strive for better levels of cognitive clarity.

Cohen and colleagues distinguished their notion from Frenkel-Brunswik’s seemingly comparable “intolerance of ambiguity,” noting that NFC does not reflect the need to perceive a coherent and meaningful reality. According to contemporary research, Cohen’s concept of need is more closely related to tolerance of ambiguity, need for structure, or need for cognitive closure than to current ideas of need for cognition.

For example, research utilizing Cohen’s measurements revealed a desire to avoid ambiguity and find “meaning,” even if it meant relying on heuristics or expert advice rather than critical examination of incoming material.

Building on this work, John Cacioppo moved away from drive-reduction toward measuring individual differences in the self-reward potential of cognitive activity, stressing that they were using the word need in the statistical sense of a “likelihood or tendency,” rather than in the rudimentary biological sense of “tissue deprivation.”

They defined the need for cognition as an individual’s tendency to “engage in and enjoy thinking” and the tendency to “organize, abstract, and evaluate information” or, variously, as a stable but individually different “tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive endeavors”, or a “intrinsic motivation to engage in effortful cognitive endeavors… and exercise their mental faculties”, or a “intrinsic motivation for effortful thought”.

The Need for Cognition Scale and Measurement

Until 1982, when Cacioppo and Petty devised their own 34-item scale to assess need for cognition, there was no instrument meant specifically to measure the trait. Researchers aimed to create a reliable tool for quantifying an individual’s inclination towards cognitive tasks. This scale underwent thorough validation processes to ensure its effectiveness.

Over time, a more concise 18-item scale was developed, catering to the need for a more efficient yet reliable assessment tool. Additionally, a reworded 6-item version of the scale is utilized in situations calling for a rapid assessment.

Research suggests that NFC may fluctuate throughout the lifespan, reflecting cognitive development and potential decline. For example, a study on the stability of NFC from Jeroen Bruinsma and Rik Crutzen indicates these changes might be tied to developmental stages, although it is not universally agreed upon that NFC diminishes with age. In terms of gender, differences have been observed but tend to be inconsistent, often contingent on contextual factors rather than on inherent gender-specific traits.

NFC and Personality Traits

Within the Big Five personality model, NFC has been found to be most strongly related to openness to experience, to a lesser extent to conscientiousness, particularly the competence and achievement striving facets, and to some extent to neuroticism.

Self-report tests were used in psychological studies on the need for cognition, in which participants replied to a series of statements such as “I prefer my life to be filled with puzzles that I must solve” and were rated on how well the statements represented them. According to the findings, those who score high on the demand for cognition scale perform marginally better in verbal intelligence tests but not in abstract reasoning tests.

Several studies have identified moderate associations between NFC and measures of verbal intelligence. One 2009 study discovered that the need for cognition had a moderate positive correlation with fluid intelligence (reasoning ability, particularly verbal, and to a lesser extent numeric and figural reasoning), but a weaker correlation with crystallised intelligence (knowledge), which had much smaller positive correlations.

A study on lucid dreaming indicated that frequent and occasional lucid dreamers performed better on NFC than non-lucid dreamers. This shows a link between waking and dreaming cognitive modes.

Researchers have proposed that this is due to increased self-reflectiveness or self-focused attention in lucid dreams, which is also connected with a stronger need for cognition. Previous research has also shown that frequent lucid dreamers are more internally focused on Rotter’s Locus of Control (LOC) scale than non-lucid dreamers.


A high need for cognition is connected with an increased susceptibility to the formation of false memories during specific learning activities. A frequent study paradigm requires participants to memorize a list of related words.

Recognition is tested by having students select learnt terms from a list of studied and unstudied objects. Certain non-researched items have conceptual similarities to studied items (for example, chair if the initial list included table and legs).

People with high NFC are more likely to exhibit false memory for these lures because they have a stronger elaboration of learnt things in memory and are more likely to consider semantically relevant (but unstudied) objects.

NFC is connected with the amount of thought put into making a decision. Both high and low levels of the attribute may be connected with certain biases in judgment.

People with a low demand for cognition exhibit increased bias when it is caused by reliance on mental shortcuts, often known as heuristic biases. People who score high on this attribute are more susceptible to biases caused by effortful thinking.

Another bias related with a low need for cognition is the halo effect, which occurs when attractive or pleasant persons are assessed as superior on a number of other attributes (for example, IQ). People with low NFC are more inclined to rate a novel target based on stereotypes rather than individual characteristics. People with high NFC levels still exhibit a halo effect, albeit a weaker one, maybe because their perceptions of the target are still influenced by its attractiveness.

Approaches to Learning

Different individuals embrace various approaches to learning based on their NFC levels. Those with higher NFC levels are inclined towards a deep approach to learning, where they seek to understand ideas and concepts for themselves, making connections between what they learn and their existing knowledge.

This contrasts with a surface approach, where individuals are more likely to focus on memorization or rote learning. The relationship among approaches to learning, NFC, and strategic flexibility is complex, as high NFC learners generally adapt their learning strategies to align with their intrinsic goals and intellectual interests.

NFC is a consistent predictor of academic performance and success. Students who possess a higher NFC are more likely to perform well academically, as they are proactive in seeking out challenging tasks and engaging in critical thinking.

Academic achievement in different learning environments, such as traditional classrooms, work-related and online settings, can be linked to NFC levels. Moreover, the link between NFC and academic results remains significant even when controlling for external factors like academic track and individual differences.

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    Petty, Richard E.; Briñol, P; Loersch, C.; McCaslin, M.J. (2009). Chapter 21. The Need for Cognition. In Leary, Mark R.; Hoyle, Rick H. (eds.). Handbook of Individual Differences in Social behavior. New York/London: The Guilford Press. pp. 318–329. ISBN 978-1-59385-647-2

Last Updated on May 3, 2024