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A shout out to controlled cognition

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When I first started teaching I was surprised at how exhausted I was at the end of the day. I grew up in working class family where I created my schema for work. Work was manual labor, and it was exhausting. Teaching was not manual labor, therefore teaching was not “work” as my young brain defined it. So why was I exhausted?

When we cover cognition in Intro Psych, we spend a considerable amount of time on automatic cognition (Daniel Kahneman’s System 1). And rightly so. Our students need to know that we are cognitive misers—a term coined by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor in the 1980s. I’d like us to throw a little more love at controlled cognition (Daniel Kahneman’s System 2).

Teaching is all about controlled cognition. Hour upon hour instructors are consciously thinking about what we’re saying and about what we’re going to say next. When a student asks a question, we have to consciously search our long-term memory for relevant information that can inform our response. With the question answered, we need to exert conscious effort to identify where we left off and get headed down our path again. If an hour later, we are teaching a different section of the same course, we have the added challenge of separating what happened in the earlier section with what is taking place in this section. “I know I’ve said this already, but was that in the earlier section or earlier in this section?” As an added challenge, teach three sections of the same course. Back to back to back. That is a lot of controlled cognition.

Assuring our students that learning also requires a lot of controlled cognition and, therefore, is exhausting would help validate their experience.

The human brain comprises about 2% of our body weight, but it uses about 20% of our energy. Unless we’re being grilled with math or interview questions, then the amount of energy our brain uses can increase by a third to almost half—or at least that was the case for one person (Gibbons, 2022).

This apparent increase in the brain’s use of energy during controlled cognition may be why I ate my way through college and graduate school. And why I eat my way through grading. I know I’m not alone in this—looking at you, colleagues.

Another cognitive-heavy activity is lying, especially if we haven’t planned and rehearsed the lie in advance. Every question we are asked, requires us to consciously decide if we are going to tell the truth or lie. If we choose lie, we have to consciously create a plausible story and monitor the reaction of the person we are telling the lie to (“Are they buying this?”). If they seem skeptical, we need to consciously amend our story. And then we need keep track of everything that we’ve said before.

Given how poor we are at detecting lies, researchers wondered if they upped the cognitive load of lie-tellers, would we have an easier time telling truth from lie? They randomly assigned volunteers to tell the truth or tell a lie. These volunteers were then randomly assigned to do so under no additional cognitive load or while also remembering a 7-digit number. Reviewers blind to conditions found the lies told under the additional cognitive load less believable (Vrij et al., 2022).

Another activity that requires a significant amount of controlled cognition is driving. When we are first learning to drive, the amount of controlled cognition is very high as we sort out which pedal is the gas and which is the brake, what turns on the windshield wipers, and how to turn on the turn signal—once we remember that we need to turn on the turn signal. It’s okay to turn right on red—unless the sign says we cannot. Once we have successfully learned the mechanics of driving, the general rules of the road, and the specifics of driving in our own areas, the amount of controlled cognition we need to use drops precipitously. When we are driving somewhere new, though, we may turn down the music or turn off the podcast so we can devote more cognition to navigation. And then if you find yourself driving in a country where they drive on the other side of the road, be prepared to find driving exhausting. It’s not bad as long as you are driving in a single direction. Right and left turns, though, require a lot of controlled cognition. When we were planning a trip from the U.S. to Australia, a friend with a lot of driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road experience advised to make any turns the responsibility of everyone in the car. When turning, everyone in the car was required to say, “Stay left! Stay left!” As the driver, I very much appreciated off-loading some of this controlled cognition to my passenger, given the life and death consequences at stake.

The Texas Department of Transportation began posting driving fatality numbers on highway dynamic message signs (DMS) one week a month starting in August 2021. The signs had a simple message, such as “79 TRAFFIC DEATHS THIS YEAR” (Ullman & Chrysler, 2022). Researchers wondered if this messaging would make drivers more cautious resulting in fewer crashes. It did not. In fact, the messages seem to have made things worse, causing a 1.52% increase in crashes within 5 km of the signs.  

Our proposed explanation for this surprising finding is that these “in-your-face,” “sobering,” negatively framed messages seize too much attention (i.e., are too salient), interfering with drivers’ ability to respond to changes in traffic conditions. Supporting this explanation, we found that displaying a higher fatality count (i.e., a plausibly more attention-grabbing statistic) causes more crashes than displaying a small one, that fatality messages are more harmful when displayed on more complex road segments, that fatality messages increase multi-vehicle crashes (but not single-vehicle crashes), and that the impact is largest close to DMSs and decreases over longer distances (Hall & Madsen, 2022, p. 370).

One last thought on traffic crashes and controlled cognition. In 2021, there were almost 43,000 traffic-related deaths in the U.S., the highest number in 16 years (National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 2022). Because of the pandemic lockdown, many of us did not drive much in 2020. As we began to re-emerge in 2021, did your driving skills feel as rusty as mine did? I found myself using much more controlled cognition than I did before or have since. This certainly is not the only explanation for the increase in traffic fatalities, but it can’t have helped. (Did more people take road trip vacations rather fly? That would put more people on the road and in unfamiliar locations.)

To wrap up this blog post, I want to note that writing is also a cognitive-heavy activity. Right after posting, we are going to get into our car and drive to our local farmer’s market—and I’m going to try very hard to not think about traffic fatality statistics on our way there or back. Please stay safe.



Gibbons, A. (2022). The calorie counter. Science, 375(6582), 710–713.

Hall, J. D., & Madsen, J. (2022). Can Behavioral Interventions Be Too Salient? Evidence From Traffic Safety Messages. Science, 376(6591), 370.

National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2022). Early estimates of motor vehicle traffic fatalities and fatality rate by sub-categories 2021 (BOT HS 813 398; Crash Stats Brief Statistical Summary, p. 10). National Highway Traffic Safety Admistration.

Ullman, Gl., & Chrysler, S. (2022). How safe are safety messages? Science, 376(6591), 347–348.

Vrij, A., Deeb, H., Leal, S., & Fisher, R. P. (2022). The effects of a secondary task on true and false opinion statements. International Journal of Psychology and Behavior Analysis, 8(185), 1–8.




About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.