All Articles Leadership Management Are you a low-effort thinker?

Are you a low-effort thinker?

Learn the signs of low-effort thinking and why you aren't immune to it.

7 min read


Susan Fowler

This article presents an ironic challenge: If you’re reading this, you’re probably a high-effort thinker. Which begs the question: Why bother checking if you’re a low-effort thinker? Let me pose two reasons.

1. Low-effort thinkers are driving you nuts.

You can’t fathom the conclusions reached by half the population on today’s significant issues. (I’m not saying which half.) But, whichever side you’re on, understanding the underlying reasons for the other half’s seemingly illogical positions, you might find yourself letting go of your frustration and loving them anyway.

2. Even intelligent people fall prey to misinformation, logical fallacies and moral disengagement.

Some of the most highly educated people in one area of life have embraced easily debunked theories in other areas of their life. Could you have unwittingly fallen into a low-effort-thinking trap? (Maybe it’s time to consider if you are driving someone else nuts!) After all, most low-effort thinkers wouldn’t describe themselves that way.

Coping with low-effort thinkers can be irritating, but we must monitor the phenomenon in ourselves — you know, the whole airplane spiel about putting your mask on first before helping the person next to you. Dealing with the low-effort thinker who drives you nuts is an important topic, but this article is to ensure you’re not that person to someone else.

Tell-tale signs you might be a low-effort thinker

The signs of low-effort thinking are easy to spot in others, especially if they disagree with you. But each of us needs to be vigilant about the quality of our own thought process. Next time you’re in a robust “conversation,” watch out for these signs that you may be jumping to indefensible conclusions based on low-effort thinking.

1. You can’t explain or defend your opinion, position or conclusion beyond two layers of inquiry

Asking questions to provoke conclusions is a manipulative technique used by savvy and popular hosts on television and radio. The questioner doesn’t need to provide proof of their opinion because they technically aren’t stating a position.

Socrates asked questions that led to conclusions, too. The difference is context and intention.

Do the questions encourage mindfulness and stimulate critical thinking, or do they trigger anxiety and promote confirmation bias? Questions designed to limit the exploration of different perspectives are commonly used by purveyors of misinformation who seek to profit off other people’s low-effort thinking.

Notice your response when someone asks you to explain or defend an opinion. Do you answer their question with another question? If so, this could be a warning sign that you’ve taken a position without the depth of understanding required to defend it. Ask yourself:

  • Have I bought into someone else’s attempts to manipulate my opinion and the only defense I have is to reiterate the questions they used to rope me in?
  • Have I failed to explore the topic well enough to provide a reasonable response?

Either way, you’ve succumbed to low-effort thinking.

2. You lapse into logical fallacies (or propagate other people’s illogical conclusions)

I plead guilty of having used at least one of the 15 types of flawed, deceptive or false arguments that can be proven wrong with reasoning. For example, when I get on my high horse during a friendly debate, my high-effort thinking husband relishes asking me, “And how did you come to your conclusion?” Ugh. Too often, I realize that my logic simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

One type of logical fallacy that seems to be deepening the chasm between people on divisive topics today is called the fallacy of argument from ignorance. Be aware when you believe something is true because there’s no evidence against it. “Scientists can’t prove that UFOs don’t visit Earth, so I believe in UFOs,” for example.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate has identified 12 internet influencers reportedly responsible for spreading almost two-thirds of pandemic misinformation. Whether you agree or disagree with the labeling of these influencers, one thing we can agree on is that they are masters of the negative proof.

Millions of people are swayed by these influencers’ ideas because what they promote hasn’t been disproven. For example, they might advise you to take large doses of specific vitamins instead of a vaccine. Their argument is that no evidence has shown that the vitamins don’t work.

Remember, just because you can’t disprove an idea doesn’t make it true. Recognize that when you employ or accept an argument from ignorance, you are simply shifting the burden of proof away from yourself to someone else. Low-effort thinkers rarely question the validity or reliability of their sources.

If you find yourself opting for an unproven solution, ask yourself why you choose to believe it over another alternative. Do you have a legitimate rationale? Or are you grasping for something else that you need more than the truth?

3. You morally disengage (or don’t recognize and counter those who do).

We morally disengage when we diffuse responsibility for our questionable behavior by blaming someone else or dehumanizing the victim. Sometimes we claim moral justification—that the ends justify the means—using what we believe to be moral ends to sanctify our destructive or harmful behavior.

Prominent social psychologist Albert Bandura identified eight ways that otherwise decent people morally disengage and do bad things. We have all witnessed someone caught in a lie and denying it under fire, even when there’s video evidence to the contrary!

A too frequent form of moral disengagement is the advantageous comparison. I call it “whataboutism.” For example, let’s say you are accused of suspicious, illegal, or unethical behavior. When faced with evidence, your defense is: “Well, what about so-and-so? You never called them out for their bad behavior.”

You may be right about the unequal treatment being unfair, but that doesn’t make your behavior less wrong. Whataboutism is blatantly illogical. If you thought so-and-so was wrong and should have been held to account, how can you defend your own actions as not suspicious, illegal or unethical?

In describing the danger of morally disengaged leaders, Bandura quotes Voltaire: “If you can lead people to believe absurdities, you can get them to commit atrocities.” Morally disengaged leaders with low-effort thinking followers are a dangerous combination.

Warning: High-effort thinking can lead to eating your words

I work intentionally to avoid low-effort thinking. It takes time. When friends share stories they find online, I root out reliable resources on the topic, sort facts from fiction and consider probabilities rather than possibilities.

But high-effort thinking also means discovering that sometimes you’re mistaken. I’ve found myself needing to change my mind and position on various issues over the years. But I refuse to label myself a hypocrite, preferring to consider myself in the process of evolving.

I believe we can all benefit from high-effort thinking because we’re better able to tolerate different perspectives, embrace nuanced arguments and hold opposing ideas as food for thought, even if we occasionally need to eat our words.


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit

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