Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious | Premature Cognitive Commitments

Premature Cognitive Commitments

This re-examining can be useful for a number of reasons. Importantly, we are afforded the opportunity to re-assess our position in relation to the thought in question. For example, in thinking a hotel an anonymous place, we may have, consciously or not, associated a value judgement: ‘hotels are mostly anonymous places (and therefore I don’t like hotels)’. It may be that this value was influenced by unexamined factors; in this instance, conventional wisdom could be the agency (‘an anonymous place is an undesirable place’), wisdom that we applied without considering whether it was true for us or not.

This mindset had its genesis in a fleeting moment, and was concretized without much consideration of the various judgements involved. Psychologist Ellen Langer describes these mindsets as ‘premature cognitive commitments’. She goes on to say, “When we accept an impression or a piece of information at face value, with no reason to think critically about it, perhaps because it seems irrelevant, that impression settles unobtrusively into our minds until a similar signal from the outside world calls it up again. At that next time it may no longer be irrelevant, but most of us don't reconsider what we mindlessly accepted earlier.”2

If, as Ricard describes, we mostly follow our thought in a mindless fashion, hurrying from one thought to the next, then there is a danger that we are unconsciously forming many premature cognitive commitments that may subsequently affect our experience of the world. In the example above, the person in question formed a negative opinion about hotels because they unquestioningly referred to conventional wisdom, without thinking through their own thoughts on the matter. It may be that this person, having considered whether anonymity was a good or bad thing in this instance, would have drawn much the same conclusions; however, these conclusions would be erected in much firmer ground.

It would be impractical to constantly be on the watch for premature cognitive commitments, or to always approach our thoughts like the aforementioned lion. Indeed, dog-like thinking is often a functional necessity of our daily experience. Yet as we’ve seen, the benefit of having something we already know brought to mind is that it allows us, if we wish, to engage our thoughts in a specific way; to re-assess ‘the obvious’ and our position in relation to it.