By Anne Bost
The Need for Cognition Scale is an assessment instrument that quantitatively measures “the tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking” (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982, p. 116). Cacioppo and Petty created the Need for Cognition Scale in 1982. The original scale included 34 questions. Two years later, Cacioppo and Petty collaborated with Chuan Feng Kao to shorten the scale to the 18-item format, which is used in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education.
The 18-item Need for Cognition Scale has been used in several settings. Investigators have used the scale to examine (a) the relationship between students’ need for cognition and their academic performance (Sadowski & Gulgoz, 1992a, 1996; Tolentino, Curry, & Leak, 1990), (b) how one’s need for cognition and religious views impact satisfaction with one’s life (Gauthier, Christopher, Walter, Mourad, & Marek, 2006), (c) how jurors’ need for cognition influences their legal decisions (Bornstein, 2004), and (d) how college students’ need for cognition influences their self-reported satisfaction with their lives as a whole (Coutinho & Woolery, 2004).
What Questions Does the Need for Cognition Scale Ask?
The Need for Cognition Scale asks individuals to rate the extent to which they agree with each of 18 statements about the satisfaction they gain from thinking. Sample statements include “I find satisfaction in deliberating hard and for long hours,” “The notion of thinking abstractly is appealing to me,” and “Thinking is not my idea of fun” (Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984).
The scale asks participants to describe the extent to which they agree with each statement using a 9-point scale with the following values:
+4 = very strong agreement
+3 = strong agreement
+2 = moderate agreement
+1 = slight agreement
0 = neither agreement nor disagreement
-1 = slight disagreement
-2 = moderate disagreement
-3 = strong disagreement
-4 = very strong disagreement
In the Wabash National Study, we asked participants to respond to the statements using a shorter five-point scale. The scale includes the following choices: extremely characteristic, somewhat characteristic, uncertain, somewhat uncharacteristic, and extremely uncharacteristic.
Out of the 18 statements on the Need for Cognition Scale, 9 are reverse scored. The final score for each individual is a tally of the individual’s points from each of the 18 questions. For example, if an individual very strongly agrees with “I like to have the responsibility of handling a situation that requires a lot of thinking,” the individual is given 4 points since this item is scored positively. If the same individual very strongly disagrees with “Thinking is not my idea of fun,” he or she is given an additional 4 points since this item is scored negatively (i.e., reverse scored). Using the nine-point scale, the highest possible score on the Need for Cognition Scale is 72 (18 items multiplied by 4 points each) and the lowest possible score is -72.
The Need for Cognition Scale can be given either electronically or in paper-and-pencil form. In either scenario, individuals receive an instruction sheet, questionnaire, and answer sheet. The scale should take no longer than five to 10 minutes to complete.
Interpreting Need for Cognition Scale Results
An individual who has a high score on the Need for Cognition Scale is more likely than someone with a low score to be what advocates of liberal arts education might simply call “a thinker.” More specifically, high scorers indicate that they readily engage in thinking about topics as they are presented, enjoy the thinking process, and are motivated to apply their thinking skills with little prompting. Such people are likely to be able to process and systematize information, sorting out the irrelevant from the important (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982, 1984). In an educational context, these personality traits and learned skills—particularly the ability to process information efficiently—can be linked with greater academic achievement (summarized in Sadowski & Gulgoz, 1996). Furthermore, as Sadowski and Cogburn have shown (1997), individuals who have high scores on the Need for Cognition Scale tend to be more conscientious and more open to experiences than are individuals who have a low need for cognition.
How Valid and Reliable Is the Need for Cognition Scale?
Based on previous research, the Need for Cognition Scale appears to be a valid and reliable measure of individuals’ tendencies to pursue and enjoy the process of thinking—that is, of their “need for cognition” (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982; Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996; Cacioppo et al., 1984; Sadowski, 1993; Sadowski & Gulgoz, 1992b). Need for Cognition scores are not influenced by whether an individual is male or female, or by differences in the individual’s level of test-taking anxiety or cognitive style (the particular way that an individual accumulates and merges information during the thinking process). In general, scores on the Need for Cognition Scale also are not impacted by whether or not the individuals are trying to paint a favorable picture of themselves (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982).
How Can I Get a Copy of the Actual Scale/Test?
The complete list of 34 questions from the original Need for Cognition Scale (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982) and the 18 questions from the revised version of the Need for Cognition Scale (Cacioppo et al., 1984, Cacioppo et al., 1996) are available from the published articles. The authors retain the copyright for the scales but have generously allowed others to use the scales for free. The Need for Cognition Scale is intended for nonprofit educational use only. The reliability and validity of the scale are contingent on using the scale in either the complete 34-item or the 18-item format, as opposed to random or targeted selection of individual questions.
The 18 statements from the revised Need for Cognition Scale (Cacioppo et al., 1984) used in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education are shown below. Asterisks designate the items that are reverse scored.
- I would prefer complex to simple problems.
- I like to have the responsibility of handling a situation that requires a lot of thinking.
- Thinking is not my idea of fun.*
- I would rather do something that requires little thought than something that is sure to challenge my thinking abilities.*
- I try to anticipate and avoid situations where there is likely a chance I will have to think in depth about something.*
- I find satisfaction in deliberating hard and for long hours.
- I only think as hard as I have to.*
- I prefer to think about small, daily projects to long-term ones.*
- I like tasks that require little thought once I’ve learned them.*
- The idea of relying on thought to make my way to the top appeals to me.
- I really enjoy a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems.
- Learning new ways to think doesn’t excite me very much.*
- I prefer my life to be filled with puzzles that I must solve.
- The notion of thinking abstractly is appealing to me.
- I would prefer a task that is intellectual, difficult, and important to one that is somewhat important but does not require much thought.
- I feel relief rather than satisfaction after completing a task that required a lot of mental effort.*
- It’s enough for me that something gets the job done; I don’t care how or why it works.*
- I usually end up deliberating about issues even when they do not affect me personally.
Bornstein, B. H. (2004). The impact of different types of expert scientific testimony on mock jurors’ liability verdicts. Psychology, Crime & Law, 10, 429–446.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116–131.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1984). The need for cognition: Relationships to attitudinal processes. In R. P. McGlynn, J. E. Maddux, C. Stoltenberg, & J. H. Harvey (Eds.), Social perception in clinical and counseling psychology. Lubbock, Texas Tech University Press.
Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., Feinstein, J, A., & Jarvis, W. B. G. (1996). Dispositional differences in cognitive motivation: The life and times of individuals varying in need for cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 197–253.
Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Kao, C. F. (1984). The efficient assessment of need for cognition. Journal of Personality Assessment, 48, 306–307.
Coutinho, S. A., Woolery, L. M. (2004). The need for cognition and life satisfaction among college students. College Student Journal, 38, 203–206.
Gauthier, K. J., Christopher, A. N., Walter, M. I., Mourad, R., & Marek, P. (2006). Religiosity, religious doubt, and the need for cognition: Their interactive relationship with life satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 139–154.
Sadowski, C. J. (1993). An examination of the short need for cognition scale. The Journal of Psychology, 127, 451–454.
Sadowski, C. J., & Cogburn, H. E. (1997). Need for cognition in the big-five factor structure. The Journal of Psychology,131, 307–312.
Sadowski, C. J., & Gulgoz, S. (1992a). Association of need for cognition and course grades. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 74, 498.
Sadowski, C. J., & Gulgoz, S. (1992b). Internal consistency and test-retest reliability of the Need for Cognition Scale. Perception and Motor Skills, 74, 610.
Sadowski, C. J., & Gulgoz, S. (1996). Elaborative processing mediates the relationship between need for cognition and academic performance. The Journal of Psychology, 130, 303–307.
Tolentino, E., Curry, L., & Leak, G. (1990). Further validation of the need for cognition scale. Psychological Reports, 66, 321–322.