Are brainy people lazy? “Need For Cognition” correlates with less physical activity

According to Hollywood stereotypes, there are the clever, nerdy young people who spend most of their time sitting around thinking and reading, and then there are the jocks – the sporty, athletic lot who prefer to do as little thinking and studying as possible. This seems like a gross over-simplification and yet a new study in the Journal of Health Psychology suggests there may be a kernel of truth to it.

The researchers, led by Todd McElroy at Florida Gulf Coast University, gave an online test of “Need For Cognition” to lots of students, to find 30 who expressed a particularly strong desire to think a lot and 30 others with a strong preference to avoid anything too mentally taxing. This test has been around for over three decades and it involves people rating how strongly they agree with items like “I really enjoy a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems” and “I only think as hard as I have to”. The 30 thinkers and 30 non-thinkers then wore an accelerometer on their wrist for 7 days, to provide a constant measure of how physically active they were during that time.

The thinkers were “far less active” Monday to Friday than the non-thinkers – a difference that the researchers described as “robust” and “highly significant” in statistical terms. At the weekends there was no difference in activity levels between the groups.

The weekday result makes sense in light of past research from the 90s that showed non-thinkers are more prone to boredom than thinkers, and find boredom more aversive. Perhaps non-thinkers resort to physical activity as a way to escape their inner worlds.

Remember this research featured just 60 people, and the results might not generalise to non-students or to other cultures. The lack of an effect over the weekend also awaits explanation. Nonetheless, given the adverse health effects of a sedentary life, McElroy and his colleagues said that more cerebral folk might want to take note, and they added that a quick visit to the gym is not enough – you need to raise your overall activity levels, maybe think about investing in a standing desk.

“Ultimately, an important factor that may help more thoughtful individuals combat their lower average activity levels is awareness,” the researchers said. “Awareness of their tendency to be less active, coupled with an awareness of the cost associated with inactivity, more thoughtful people may then choose to become more active throughout the day.”

The physical sacrifice of thinking: Investigating the relationship between thinking and physical activity in everyday life

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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26 thoughts on “Are brainy people lazy? “Need For Cognition” correlates with less physical activity”

  1. It’s good to see old concepts in psychology being re-examined by modern researchers. Before Cacioppo’s work, Henry Murray and colleagues (1938; republished 2008) – Explorations in Personality, identified about 20 important psychogenic or psychological needs, one of which was Need-Cognizance – i.e., “Understanding”. Murray’ insight into human motivation remains superb and relevant to modern clinical psychology. Personality tests stimulated by Murray’s theory that touch on similar concepts of the need for cognition (among many other needs) include the Edwards personal Preference Schedule (“Intraception”), and Jackson’s Personality Research Form (“Understanding”). PS. I am the author of a modernised developmental model of psychological needs that explains the origins of core beliefs, as well as “most things” pertaining to wellbeing and psychopathology. On another personal note, I balance my high need for cognition by starting competitive long-distance running in my 60’s.

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