Can You Think Too Much?


Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands have discovered that thinking too much about a certain task can actually lead to negative effects. Psychologists Bruno Bocanegra and Bernhard Hommel’s research suggests that under some circumstances, performance can decline if you exercise too much cognitive control. This finding calls into question the traditional ideas of thinking, namely more cognitive effort, should lead to a better result. Their research shows that if the environment already offers enough information for the cognitive system to carry out the task on “automatic pilot” then the less cognitive effort, the better the result of the task.

If you have experience in driving a stick-shift car, then you have likely experienced this effect. After knowing and continually driving the car, you get use to knowing when to push in the clutch and shift, and you have no difficulty in reacting to situations, like stopping quickly. But as soon as you consciously think about how to do a hill start. Now your mental effort disrupts your automatic skills, and rather than having no trouble, you can feel your car start to roll on the hill. Or when you play the piano or are touch-typing. As soon as you exercise cognitive mental control over the task you break the chain of automatic actions. Bocanegra states that “cognitive control is effective until you have mastered something and your skills have become automatic.”

They conducted research by asking participants to make mental efforts while carrying out a simple computer task. They were asked to click either the left or right button, depending on the stimulus given. Without the participant knowing, the task was manipulated so that color always predicted the correct answer. Contrary to what traditional ideas about mental effort states, the research found that the predicting information of color had a negative effect on the performance of the task.

I would like to see more studies done on automatic tasks. I think there is potential that there is retrieval problems when consciously thinking about a task that was encoded contextually and is now automatic. The study here was not well described and I would like to read more about the methodology and see the statistical results. I think it is true that when we are aware of the usually automatic task and we try to do it consciously, that we make more errors. I would like to see if this is a problem between incidental and intentional learning; that when you take an incidentally learned task, like touch-typing that just comes from typing often, and make it intentional, does that cause for interference because the retrieval pathways are not efficient? Or is it a problem of maintenance rehearsal because the information is staying active?