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Cognitive Friction definition


Cognitive friction theory, developed by Sweller (1988), refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Sweller described the process as having three main parts: sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory. Your sensory memory receives all the information from your daily actions and activities (sounds, smells, everything you see, etc.). Then that sensory information passes into your working memory which either processes or discards it. If your brain processes the information, tries to categorise it, learn it, or put it in a “knowledge structure/schema”, this information then passes into long-term memory. Once this has taken place, we begin to process the information automatically and without much cognitive effort.

Cognitive friction theory is based on the fact that individuals are limited in their working memory capacity and so understand and learn more easily through instructional methods that avoid overloading it with superfluous information. In other words, heavy cognitive load can have negative effects on task completion and lead to errors and interference in the task. Learning happens best under conditions that are aligned with this human cognitive architecture.

For example, studies have shown that the widespread use of laptops and cell phones in classrooms has generally reduced academic success. Indeed, it increases the distractions available for students (who will inevitably check Facebook and emails etc whilst also taking part in the class) which in turn increases their overall cognitive load and reduces space in their working memory for effective reception of important information.

Cognitive friction theory has many applications in web marketing, especially with the continuous development of new technologies. Some navigation functions risk overloading users and driving them into a state of cognitive strain which then lessens the likelihood of them taking desirable actions.

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