Cognitive Complexity Lab

Download the Automated Integrative Complexity scoring system

What do we study?

In the cognitive complexity lab, we study virtually anything that has to do with how complexly people think. What causes complex thinking? What consequences does it have? In doing so, we have studied a wide array of persons: College students, U.S. Presidents and Presidential Candidates, terrorists, Canadian Prime Ministers, famous religious converts, famous atheists, and famous liars such as Ken Lay of ENRON and Richard Nixon. We have also studied the effects of lying, of extremism, of political conservatism/liberalism, and of attitude heritability on complex thinking.  And we've explored the consequences of complexity on personal health, attitude formation, and election outcomes (e.g., Conway et al, 2017, BMJ Open; Conway, Houck, Gornick, & Repke, 2017, Political Psychology;  Houck, Repke, & Conway, 2017, Journal of Policing, Intelligence, and Counter-Terrorism; Repke, Conway, & Houck, 2017, Journal of Language and Social Psychology;  Conway, Houck, Gornick, & Repke, 2016, Journal of Language and Social Psychology; Conway, Gornick, Houck, & Conway, 2015, Political Psychology; Houck, Conway, & Gornick, 2014, Political Psychology; Conway, Gornick, Burfiend, Mandella, Kuenzli, & Houck, 2012, Political Psychology; Conway et al., 2008).  

Recently, our lab was awarded two separate federally-funded grants to apply cognitive complexity research to help people quit smoking. One of those grants (NIH/NIGMS 14-746Q-UMT-PG2-00; $75,000; Conway, PI) was successfully completed in June 2014; the other (NIH/NCI R15 DA035428-01A1; $300,000; Conway, PI) runs from 2014-2018.

What is cognitive complexity?

Cognitive complexity is how complexly or simply people think about a particular issue. So, for example, I may think "broccoli is terrible -- I hate it." That's a pretty simple thought -- one idea about broccoli. But I may think something else about broccoli, like "broccoli has a terrible texture, but a nice flavor." (Ok, the flavor part is totally untrue, but work with me here). That's more complex -- it contains two distinct ideas about broccoli. Further, I may think “broccoli has a terrible texture and a nice flavor; but really, it’s the way the flavor and texture combine in the palate that make the unique broccoli experience.” That’s more complex still – I’m not just presenting two distinct ideas (flavor and texture), but I’m discussing how they are interrelated. Well, it turns out that almost any statement ever recorded in the history of human beings can be coded along this complexity dimension. In our lab, we most typically use the well-validated integrative complexity construct to code written or spoken statements on a 1-7 scale, as well as two new constructs of our own design known as elaborative complexity and dialectical complexity. These two new constructs help us "break down" the overall integrative complexity score into its component parts, in particular whether it emerged because someone is defending a single view complexly ("elaborative" complexity) versus actually considering multiple views in a complex way ("dialectical" complexity).

What is cognitive complexity, Part II?

Our lab has pioneered the development of the cognitive complexity construct with a new, innovative way of determining what kind of complexity we are talking about. In particular, consider the following two statements: (1) "Broccoli has a terrible texture but a great flavor." (2) "Broccoli has a terrible texture and, completely independent of that, it also has a terrible flavor." Both statements would score a 3 on the intergrative complexity scale, because both clearly discuss different dimensions associated with broccoli. Yet few would argue that the two statements are at least somewhat psychologically different: The first statement acknowledges pros and cons to broccoli, while the second offers a unilaterally negative view. In response, we have developed a system that allows to tell how much of a particular integrative complexity score is due to the first kind of thing (which we call dialectical complexity) versus the second kind of thing (which we call elaborative complexity). In addition to seeing some of  publications on the topic (Conway et al., in press; Houck et al., 2014; Political Psychology; Conway, Gornick, Burfiend, Mandella, Kuenzli, & Houck, 2012, Political Psychology; Conway, Dodds, Towgood, McClure, & Olson, 2011, Journal of Personality; Conway, Thoemmes, Allison, Towgood, Wagner, Davey, Salcido, Stovall, Dodds, Bongard, & Conway, 2008, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), we also refer the reader to the Dialectical-Elaborative Manual.

What is cognitive complexity, Part III?

We have further designed a system to automatically score complexity via the computer. We've published two papers (Conway, Conway, Gornick, & Houck, 2014, Political Psychology; Houck, Conway, & Gornick, 2014, Political Psychology) on this system's validation, and many other papers have used the system (e.g., Houck et al., 2017; McCullough & Conway, 2017).  Academics can use the system for free -- instructions and a link to the portal can be found on the "Automated Integrative Complexity" link in the lower right hand corner.