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Cognitive complexity can have various meanings:

  • the number of mental structures we use, how abstract they are, and how elaborately they interact to shape our perceptions.
  • dimensions of a persons thinking style that lead them to individual responses to stimuli.
  • the level of a person's social perception skill [1].

In artificial intelligenceEdit

In an attempt to explain how humans perceive relevance, Cognitive complexity is defined as an extension of the notion of Kolmogorov complexity. It amounts to the length of the shortest description available to the observer. Here is an example : Individuating a particular Inuit woman among one hundred people is simpler in a village in Congo rather than in an Inuit village.

Cognitive complexity is related to probability (see Simplicity theory): situation are cognitively improbable if they are simpler to describe than to generate. Human individuals attach two complexity values to events:

  • description complexity (see above definition)
  • generation complexity: the size of the minimum set of parameter values than the 'world' (as imagined by the observer) needs to generate the event.

To 'generate' an event such as an encounter with an Inuit woman in Congo, one must add up the complexity of each event in the causal chain that brought her there. The significant gap between both complexities (hard to produce, easy to describe) makes the encounter improbable and thus narratable.

Related termsEdit

Related to cognitive complexity is the term behavioral complexity, used by some researchers in organizational studies, organizational culture and management.[2]

See alsoEdit


  1. Burleson, B.R., & Caplan, S.E. (1998). Cognitive complexity. In J.C. McCroskey, J.A. Daly, M.M. Martin, & M.J. Beatty (Eds.), Communication and personality: Trait perspectives (233-286). Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press. - Cited according to: The impact ofcognitive complexity and self-monitoring on leadership emergence, Melissa Ann Dobosh, thesis submitted to the Faculty of the University of Delaware in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Communication Summer 2005
  2. See Robert Hooijberg, Behavioral complexity and managerial effectiveness: a new perspective on managerial leadership, University of Michigan, 1992; Daniel R. Denison, Robert Hooijberg, Robert E. Quinn, Toward a theory of behavioral complexity in managerial leadership, University of Michigan, September 1993

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

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