What Is the Definition of Cognitive Complexity?

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Cognitive complexity refers to the number of processes required to complete specific tasks. Although its origins lie in psychology and personal construct theory, it's also used as a measurement of task difficulty in other fields. Understanding cognitive complexity aids individuals and organizations in decision-making.

Personal Construct Theory

According to personal construct theory, each individual interprets the world through constructs. These are essentially shortcuts that help them analyze what's going on around them. For example, if you see a dark sky, you may suspect that it's going to rain. You can make this prediction if you learned from experience that the sky darkens before it rains. This construct is useful because it helps you decide whether to go outside, stay home, or put on rain gear before heading out the door.


Task Complexity


Task complexity refers to the number of mental and physical interactions required to complete a task. Think about what you have to know and be able to do, in order to make a peanut butter sandwich. It seems like a simple task and it is—after you have the knowledge and skill necessary to complete each step. This includes knowing how to open the jars, as well as having the ability to hold a spoon or knife, scoop out the ingredients, and spread them on the bread.


The first time someone tries to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be time consuming and messy. This is because it requires a greater number of mental and physical interactions. Personal construct theory suggests that constructs developed through trial and error reduce the amount of time it takes to perform a task such as making a PB&J. This doesn't end as soon as the individual masters the sandwich-making steps. Challenges like opening a jar with a sticky lid and cleaning up spilled jelly require additional constructs.


Cognitive Complexity in Psychology


In addition to personal construct theory, cognitive complexity plays a role in the study of industrial and organizational psychology. Like individuals, organizations have to interpret the environment around them and make decisions based on this information. Researchers in the field have noted that organizations with diverse decision-makers, who have a variety of perspectives, have greater cognitive complexity which brings more creativity and timeliness to their work.


Cognitive Complexity in Education


Educators use cognitive complexity to determine which materials and activities are appropriate for children. It's commonly used to identify which texts students can read. Teachers look quantitative features like the number of words on the page, and the number of syllables in each word. They also consider qualitative features like the complexity of sentences and ideas in the text. Texts with fewer and shorter words take less time to decode and have a lower cognitive complexity than texts with more advanced vocabulary and sentence structure.


Cognitive Complexity in Coding


In computer coding, cognitive complexity refers to the relationship between humans creating code and the computers or artificial intelligence that must interpret it. Factors like shorthand, nesting, and breaks in linear flow contribute to the code's cognitive complexity. The term is also a name for a program that analyzes code.