Cognitive reflection (or we tend to ignore the simple)

When I was learning improv, I over complicated it. And then I realized that it was a lot like writing, which simplified it (for me, personally, your person competencies will vary). But then I plateaued, and it took an embarrassingly long time to see the simple truth – “If improv is like writing, my deficiencies in improv mirrored my deficiencies in writing.” As my ego is wrapped up in writing, it was much harder for me to see that and begin to fix it.

Simplicity is hard, man. Here’s an example.


FROM THE WEB[1] : Can you correctly answer the Cognitive Reflection Test? (83 percent of people miss at least 1 question of this “IQ Test”)

(1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? _____ cents

(2) If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____ minutes

(3) In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _____ days


The answers are ridiculously simple. Hopefully you got them all right. Even if you’re not a math person, you should be a good enough improviser to spot a trick question when you see one.

When I show this to people they tend to get in their heads. “I’m bad at math, Matt. I can’t do this.” Interestingly, even math people tend to get tripped up by at least one of these (they tried it on MIT students). The brain tends to be lazy, to take shortcuts. Once those shortcuts are established, it’s very hard to see them, to admit to them to fix them.

A lot of people like to give advice like, “Just react to the last thing said emotionally,” or similar. I tend to struggle with advice like this, unless it’s framed by a more conceptual example of why the advice is helpful.

Given that we struggle with simplicity, and given that we’re all working to up our game, the simple advice I have is this: if faced with a problem, it’s useful to ask “If this is true, then what is the simple thing I’m not seeing that would make it actionable and helpful to me?”