On the Need for New Cognitive Motivational Concepts: Response to Julia Galef’s Why We Need a New Word for “Lazy”

On her blog and Twitter, one of my favourite podcast hosts, Julia Galef, argued that we need a non-judgmental term for “lazy”. As this touches upon a key concept of my theory of meta-effectiveness, I thought I should write a quick[-1] response.

In sum, Galef takes a relativistic utilitarian moral view: that a rational life is one in which one pursues one’s preferences. She assumes it’s a perfectly legitimate preference to be “lazy”, i.e., to dislike work. She argues that we need a non-judgmental term for wanting to minimize work. She acknowledges that “connotation creep” is a hard problem. [0]

I agree there with her that there’s a gap. It’s not just a terminological gap, however. More interestingly, there are several conceptual gaps in the logical topography of “conative-cognitive” theory. (In Section 3.3.3, “Cognitive miserliness and its antagonists”, of Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, and elsewhere in that book, I pointed several of them out.)

This calls for conceptual analysis, exploring logical topography, and exploring the space of possible mental designs. I will return to this (hopefully briefly) below.

More generally, while one has to understand existing concepts and hence folk psychology, one cannot adequately fill these terminological and conceptual gaps without reference to theories developed from the designer stance.

Efficiency and Cognitive Miserliness

A concept in the neighbourhood of Galef’s target is efficiency. Minimizing cognitive work calls for a concept of cognitive energy. Mental energy has been out of fashion in psychology for decades, perhaps as a result of Sigmund Freud’s failed attempts to develop a theory about it. (Compare also Kurt Lewin’s Field theory). However, Kruglanski and colleagues recently supplied a starting point in

Kruglanski, A. W., Bélanger, J. J., Chen, X., Köpetz, C., Pierro, A., & Mannetti, L. (2012). [The energetics of motivated cognition: A force-field analysis. Psychological Review, 119(1), 1–20.](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21967165)

In sum, they posit that purposeful behaviour is conatively controlled by a potential driving force and a restraining force, which work in opposition to each other. The former is the maximum amount of cognitive energy an individual is potentially willing to apply to a task. This in turn is a function of the importance of the task’s goal, and the amount of mental resources potentially available to the task. Restraining forces include: competing goals (can’t do everything at the same time), the demands of the task, and the tendency to conserve mental resources.

Notice that many theoretical concepts are involved here. In particular there is a quantitative concept of mental resources, which was later advocated by Luiz Pessoa in his excellent book, The Cognitive Emotional Brain.

Kruglanski et al used the term “cognitive miserliness” to refer to the tendency to conserve mental resources. Perhaps this expression is sufficiently neutral to fulfill Galef’s requirements. (Kruglanski et al 2012 is mentioned in Cognitive Productivity.)

Productive Laziness, Cognitive Parsimony, and Anytime Algorithms

Section 12.8.4 of Cognitive Productivity is “Productive laziness (cognitive parsimony)”. The term “productive” lends a positive connotation to laziness. “Cognitive parsimony” is more neutral than productive laziness. I prefer “cognitive parsimony” to “cognitive miserliness”, considering it to be more neutral. (“Miserliness” has a negative connotation).

In the meta-management section of Cognitive Productivity I wrote:

Cognitive miserliness refers to the tendency to cut thinking short. “Cognitive parsimony” is a more neutral expression. Cognitive parsimony in itself is often called for. The problem at hand may not be sufficiently important for excessive reasoning. Reasoning on one problem detracts from reasoning about other problems. Reasoning is also tiring. There may also be important temporal constraints to deal with. (Compare the discussion of productive laziness, below.) If you’re playing chess on a timer, your deliberation strategies had better be time-sensitive.  AI researchers, Thomas Dean and M. Boddy explored “anytime algorithms”, i.e., algorithms whose solutions improve as a function of time available. (Chess software deploys such algorithms.) One would often want the management layer to use this type of algorithm such that it can be interrupted by meta-layer processes and return a response whose quality is a function of time spent reasoning. AI researchers introduced the concept of “utility of computation” to refer to the expected value and costs of information processing.

An Architecture-based Concept of Effectance

In a 1959 paper in Psychological Review, like Galef, Robert White addressed a gap in the terminology for cognitive-motivational concepts. He coined the term “effectance” for motivation for competence. The concept of effectance is critical in the knowledge age.

However, White developed his concept before the cognitive revolution, and before significant attempts to develop integrative theories of cognition, emotion, motivation. He also did not have access to architecture-based AI (the designer stance PDF). I modernized White’s concept along those lines, throwing conceptual analysis and empirical methods into the mix as well.[1]

Here’s an excerpt from one of the section on effectance in Cognitive Productivity:

However, here lies a rarely noted subtlety. Effectance ought not to be understood as a single, top-level drive, goal or motivator.(44) Nor do our inclinations towards behaviors that increase our competence necessarily involve explicit and conscious representations of competence (e.g., goals to become more competent). Instead, it is reasonable to assume that people have mechanisms that lead them to produce goals the pursuit of which will or may directly or as a side-effect improve their competence.(45) One normally delves a paper to better understand it and to use it for building knowledge or solving a problem. One does not necessarily engage in this behavior for the explicit or otherwise unconsciously operating motive of improving one’s competence. Yet delving can develop one’s effectiveness and so it reflects our implicit effectance.(46) More generally, the human mind can generate top-level goals as a reflex without deriving them from means-ends analysis, planning or other deliberate processes. I call these “reactive, intrinsic motives”.(47) A motive whose pursuit improves one’s effectiveness is not necessarily seen, felt or otherwise represented in the mind as a means towards effectiveness.

Thus, effectant motives are not simply aimed at flow.(48) Nor are they normally aimed (even unconsciously) at improving effectiveness. For one to be effectant is to have mechanisms that produce top-level goals (i.e., goals that are treated as good in themselves) the pursuit of which leads (or tends to lead) to the development of competence. Effectant people implicitly inherently value competence.

This concept of effectance relies on a very powerful new concept of motivation, developed by Aaron Sloman, called architecture-based motivation. The idea is that evolution has produced minds that pursue motives that are neither explicitly encoded in, nor derived through means-ends analysis by, the agent. The motives come from asynchronous motive generators. These motive generators spontaneously do their work, but they can also be developed (minds contain motive generator generators, and so forth), deliberately or not.

I can only briefly mention, without explaining, that this has implications for moral theory and utilitarianism (a stance implicit in Galef’s post), at least in as much as they are based on utilitarian psychology.[2]

Fluid Intelligence and Fluid Expertise

Two other concepts related to cognitive laziness are discussed in Cognitive Productivity :

  1. Fluid intelligence. This is tightly related to cognitive miserliness. I believe the term was coined by Keith Stanovich. This is the disposition to apply one’s cognitive resources.
  2. Fluid expertise. This is the motivation to apply one’s expertise in solving problems. This was coined by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia. It turns out, unfortunately, that some experts stagnate, and cease to be motivated to develop or deeply apply their expertise. They rely on their previous levels of expertise, which may work most of the time, but they tend to miss cases for which their prior learning has not sufficiently prepared them. They focus on efficiency that benefits their bottom line (minimize effort, maximize returns), rather than the constitutional problems domains of their expertise. (Note the latter very relevant concept.) Who wants such an expert as their MD or lawyer?

All-or-none vs. Quantitative Concepts in this Space

There are several important qualitative-quantitative distinctions implicit in Galef’s position.

  1. I’ve already mentioned the quantitative mental resource view ( Kruglanski and Pessoa). In this view, information can be more or less conscious; a process may be more or less “attentional”; etc.
  2. There’s the quantitative notion of mental energy.
  3. There are (qualitative) predicates denoting dispositions to apply mental energy. For example: Lazy vs. degrees of miserliness, efficiency, etc.; and effectant vs. effectance.

The quest for a term to replace “lazy” may be doomed by the fact that “lazy” is a qualitative dispositional noun. Moreover, it implies a stable character-attribution. (There may also be a reification fallacy lurking in the folk psychology of laziness.)

Someone on Twitter mentioned Laziness Does Not Exist – E Price – Medium which is pertinent. However, while interesting, I think Price’s article does not address the need for a neutral concept/term that Galef seeks.

Effectance Is a Virtue, Its Opposite Is a Vice

Although Galef would prefer a term with no affective connotation, connotation creep may be inevitable, as she notes. I would add that this inevitability is perhaps not just a contingent matter of empirical fact (a quirk of the human mind), but because it’s helpful to view efficiency positively (and that may be how the concept works). This in itself is a very interesting topic. At the end of Cognitive Productivity, I briefly discussed pragmatism, of which helpfulness is a central concept. Psychological pragmatists eschew objective notions of “good”/”bad” in favour of the concept of helpfulness: does a thought or behavior help? The irony is that pragmatists can’t avoid assuming that which is helpful is good, and that which is unhelpful is bad. But I digress.

There are many forms of cognitive parsimony. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that lacking sufficient fluid expertise, fluid intelligence and effectance is a bad thing. It violates rationality, it harms people, it leads to avoidable bad outcomes, etc.[3]

Ultimately, we have a moral responsibility to nurture our own, and each other along these dimensions.


The key concept in my Cognitive Productivity books is actually not productivity but one that was developed to address a gap in the space of cognitive concepts and terms, one that is particularly strange given that we are supposedly in the Knowledge Age: that is meta-effectiveness. Meta-effectiveness is the collection of skills and dispositions to use knowledge to become a more effective person. Effectance is thus a component of meta-effectiveness.

Clearly, meta-effectiveness is a virtue.

Learning from Stories and About “Emotions”

I have spent a good chunk of the last 20 years thinking about how one might use declarative and practical knowledge to become more effective. Since 2013, I have increasingly been thinking about how we can use art in general, and fiction in particular, to develop ourselves. My first stab at this will appear in my next book, Discontinuities: Love, Art, Mind. I hope to be in a position to follow this up with Cognitive Productivity with Fiction. But before the latter I intend to write a book on “emotions” in terms of CogXAff (see footnotes), books and projects.

New macOS App

But before publishing my new books, we at CogSci Apps will release an app to help Mac users improve their cognitive productivity with all kinds of information. We’re now tracking towards a fall public beta for this app.

This in turn will be followed by an iOS app.

Zest vs. Zeal

I think the term for investing too much effort into something is “zeal”, the dark side of zest. Zeal makes laziness look good. I don’t think zest-zeal, or laziness for that matter, is a simple continuum.

I’m doing lots of not-yet public writing these days. I needed a public writing fix. Armed with my fair share of “cognitive” biases, I’m going to attribute my latest bout of prolixity to cognitive zest rather than zeal.


-1. Above, I wrote “quick response” as a form of self-control, because I’m very tempted to write for hours on the subject, because I’m passionate about the intersection of cognition, motivation and affect (which is why this website is called “CogZest”!). I don’t lack energy. But I do need to stay focused in order to move my projects forward. So I’ll write this more or less in point form.

0. a) I argue briefly against utilitarianism here.

b) For many examples of the human mind naturally assigning value to just about anything (“connotating”), see Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. Wright argues that a type of meditation can help one deal with this somewhat problematic natural tendency.

1. In a paper I am writing, I call this inter-function, inter-disciplinary approach to understanding mind the CogXAff approach. If you’d like to review and potentially sign a manifesto on CogXAff, please email me, lucb@CogZest.com. Or check out http://CogXAff.org this fall. I’m currently writing a paper that outlines this approach and applies it sleep onset and insomnia. It’s the approach I’ve favored since my Ph.D. days.

2. My first arguments against utilitarianism as a psychological theory are in chapter 6 of my phd thesis:

Beaudoin, L. P. (1994). _Goal processing in autonomous agents._ (Doctoral dissertation). University of Birmingham, Birmingham UK.  Retrieved from [(http://www.sfu.ca/~lpb/tr/Luc.Beaudoin_thesis.pdf](http://www.sfu.ca/~lpb/tr/Luc.Beaudoin_thesis.pdf)

I find it rather depressing that so many smart, well informed and well intentioned people are deceived by psychological utility theory. This fall, I will give a talk about this, which I will summarize in a blog post here on CogZest.

3. My argument does not depend on Kant’s categorical imperatives, but it is bolstered by it. And this is a very interesting read: Immanuel Kant and The One Rule for Life | Mark Manson. Compare my 2015 blog post, Humean vs. Kantian Approaches to Kantian Mechanisms (Human Mind) – CogZest.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity . Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker. Adjunct Professor of Education & Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science, Simon Fraser University Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. See About Me for more information.

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