I have excerpted my latest JREF article below. It is the second part in a series of two that serves as a guide to the cognitive theories of information processing and how we can use this knowledge to better debunk pseudoscience.
An Introduction to Human Information Processing (Part 2)
We are bombarded daily with more information than ever before in human history. Even our youngest have 24/7 access to a world of knowledge. We make information a part of our culture and our everyday lives. Especially in the age of the Internet, it is important to understand how people seek information and how they process it once they get it. For decades, psychologists have considered different models that attempt to describe the seeking and processing of information, and how this affects critical thought. One of these models, The Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM) described by communications researcher Shelly Chaiken in the 1980’s, views human information processing as a dual-process. We can make quick, gut feeling, and often biased decisions about information or we can critically evaluate them, looking for evidence and weighing the alternatives. Human information processing is then broken into heuristic and systematic seeking/processing. [You may recognize this dual-process as what Daniel Kahneman describes as system 1 and system 2 thinking.]
As was discussed in Part 1 of this article, the HSM has been widely successful in describing human cognition, especially when researching media consumption. The model works on a basis of cognitive economy (the more effort you are willing to expend, the more deeply you are predicted to process the information, and vice versa) and information sufficiency (how much information you think you need on a topic will predict whether you look closely at the information or not), each predicting what style of thinking a person will engage in.
Out of this model also comes a number of heuristics, or cognitive short cuts, the appearance of which allows us to make quick judgments on information. For example, an article that has a number of scientific references may lead you to consider the information as credible, without checking the references yourself. The critical thinker cannot escape cognitive heuristics, as they are ever-present, but they can be recognized, corrected for, and even harnessed.
For critical thinking to take place, there is a constant tension between how much effort you are willing to give and how much information you think you need about something. [Keep in mind that you can critically think about something and still be wrong.] This depth of processing is what is described by the HSM. But for a complete view of dual processing, two more factors complicate things: motivation and capacity.
You can find an archive of my other longer posts for the JREF here.