Being Lazy with Headlines isn’t a Sign of High Intelligence

It's a visual pun so I won't explain it. :P

It’s a visual pun so I won’t explain it. 😛

The way the media often reports on statistics, even ones that might reinforce some sort of cognitive bias that I have tends to irk me. In this case The Independent and the Research Digest for The British Psychological Society both reported on a study with a ridiculously small sample size (60 people) and said it held interesting results. And it’s not like it’s impossible for a study with a low sample size to yield interesting results but as usual, it’s overplayed.

Now, the study itself seems to suggest (according to The Independent’s title) that lazier people are generally smarter than people who decide to spend much of their days doing physical activity. And to the Research Digest’s credit they stipulate their claims slightly earlier on and have a much more ambiguous title merely implying what the study does: that the “need for cognition” correlates with less of a need for physical activity.

The Independent however oversimplifies this conceptual point and acts as if this necessarily makes lazier people smarter. But they never actually establish that the “need for cognition” is the same as being “smarter” which seem like potentially interrelated things but not necessarily the same thing.

My point being that the media loves simplifying the science behind studies so they can have a much prettier look to it. The original study isn’t really worth commenting on even if it does suggest what The Independent says it suggests, which, because they never even discuss what “intelligence” itself actually means, isn’t clear.

Does being intelligent mean you require more cognition? Don’t people who require less cognition still get that cognition but rather from mental activities they get it from physical activities? It also seems likely to me that it would be smarter to carefully balance both of these things rather than systematically privileging one over the other.

It also doesn’t seem to be the case  that in getting more physical exercise you couldn’t also get mental exercise as well. For example, when I used to go running all of the time (and this book tour has surely helped me keep in shape!) I listened to Stuff You Should Know for every run that I did. The time for each episode was generally the same amount of time as it took for me to go for a run and then come back so it worked out great.

In any case, I was able to stimulate my brain and my body at the same time and I’m sure people can and in fact do similarly at the gym, for example. They might also be using that time to reflect on their days or trying to get through their depression as a way to aid in their own mental exercise for future dates.

It just seems simplistic to me to stipulate that a study with only 60 people in it (no matter what it suggested) is somehow worth reporting on like it’s a big revelation.

I’ll talk a bit about the study itself though based on what The Independent reports:

The ‘need for cognition’ questionnaire asked participants to rate how strongly they agree with statements such as “I really enjoy a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems”, and “I only think as hard as I have to”.

Would it be the case that those who are “smarter” enjoy tasks that involve new solutions to problems? And would it be the case that those who are “dumber” would only think as hard as they have to? In fact, wouldn’t lazier people tend more towards the latter option than the former? I know that if I’m trying to be lazy about something I’ll only try to think as hard as I have to about something else, not constantly come up with new solutions.

The findings of the study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, were described as “highly significant” and “robust” in statistical terms.

Okay…but how exactly? Why? It’s only 60 people and sure, perhaps the results within that context were significant but more generally it doesn’t seem like a fairly significant find. And that seems slightly more important.

It also seems to me like people who are smarter would thereby recognize the benefits of doing more exercise and therefore would be exercising more often than the study indicates. On the other hand, I’m going strictly by what these articles say because (get ready for it) the two articles in question never actually link the study itself or where we can find it. And yeah, I know, I’ve complained about this problem before but dammit it’s frustrating.

If you want us to be convinced of something you could at least try to link the source material, right?

There are some articles on the internet that slightly moderate the claim(s) going on here with regards to intelligence and merely claim that this study indicates that being lazy could be a sign of intelligence. Which, yeah, that seems much more likely to be true but the sample size is still a huge problem either way.

As usual, it took a bit of digging but if you’re curious here’s the study. I only found it because this site did a bit of a retroactive look at how crazy popular this study got (at least compared to other studies and their subsequent mainstream popularity). And in fairness I do want to say that the way studies and academia handle studies is ridiculous and very closed off which likely doesn’t make it any easier for media outlets to actually cite their sources.

Still, I was able to do so in less than five minutes, so that likely isn’t a huge factor here.

Interestingly, the study itself never mentions or discusses laziness and one of the main people behind it, Todd McElroy, says that people tend to see it as “me time” than “laziness”. And in addition says that people are starting to see “laziness” (when it is called that) in a more positive way than previous generations.

So all of those things are pretty positive, but I agree with McElroy that more research needs to be done.

The differences in cognition was reduced on the weekend and while the researchers (and media outlets) seemed similarly unavailable for speculation, I’ll speculate instead. It seems to me that it’s just likely the case that since people generally have the weekends off or more more time for leisure time during those days, that it would level off more.

I don’t think it’s anything more complicated than that, but obviously I could be wrong.

It’s also important to note that the title of the study is much more nuanced in its overview of what it’s looking at: “The Physical Sacrifice of Thinking: Investigating the Relationship between Thinking and Physical Activity in Everyday Life”.

This title isn’t as straightforwardly optimistic about people being lazy. In fact one of the keywords of the study is obesity which makes it pretty clear to me that the study was more interested in seeing how low-energy people handle physical exercise or the lack thereof. It doesn’t have much to do with the fact that they are low-energy, let alone their intelligence.

As I read down in the study I remember that the study’s participants were college students so that’s probably another reason (and perhaps more primary than my own speculation) why “the weekend effect” (as the study calls it) happens.

Anyways, this is how The Independent finishes their article, so keep that in mind:

Despite highlighting an unusual trend, generalising the findings should be done with caution due to the small sample of participants, it added.

Maybe put that at the beginning?


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