We go with the flow

The Psychologist has a completely fascinating article on how we perceive things to be more appealing, easier to handle and more efficient based on how simple they are to understand – even when this is based on irrelevant or superficial properties – like its name or the font it is described in.

The core idea is that we partly judge things on ‘processing fluency’, that is, how easy it is to immediately grasp something. This seems intuitive, as we tend to prefer things that make sense to us, but it turns out that this preference is also heavily influenced by surface features.

For example, the article discusses the surprising amount of work on how simply changing the font can change our opinion of what the text is describing.

When they were presented [with physical exercise instructions] in an easy-to-read print font (Arial), readers assumed that the exercise would take 8.2 minutes to complete; but when they were presented in a difficult-to-read print font, readers assumed it would take nearly twice as long, a full 15.1 minutes (Song & Schwarz, 2008b). They also thought that the exercise would flow quite naturally when the font was easy to read, but feared that it would drag on when it was difficult to read. Given these impressions, they were more willing to incorporate the exercise into their daily routine when it was presented in an easy-to-read font. Quite clearly, people misread the difficulty of reading the exercise instructions as indicative of the difficulty involved in doing the exercise…

Novemsky and colleagues (2007) presented the same information about two cordless phones in easy- or difficult-to-read fonts. They observed that 17 per cent of their participants postponed choice when the font was easy to read, whereas 41 per cent did so when the font was difficult to read. Apparently, participants misread the difficulty arising from the print font as reflecting the difficulty of making a choice.

The article contains numerous examples of how changing surface features, such as giving something an easy or difficult to pronounce name, alters what we think about it.

However, the piece also mentions that giving something difficult-to-process or unfamiliar features also means we scrutinise it more closely, which means we often pick up errors more easily.

This is is a wonderfully elegant example:

As an example, consider the question ‚ÄòHow many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?‚Äô Most people answer ‚Äòtwo‚Äô despite knowing that the biblical actor was Noah, not Moses. Even when warned that some of the statements may be distorted, most people fail to notice the error because both actors are similar in the context of biblical stories. However, a change in print fonts is sufficient to attenuate this Moses illusion. When the question was presented in an easy-to-read font, only 7 per cent of the readers noticed the error, whereas 40 per cent did so when it was presented in a difficult-to-read font…

Link to Psychologist article on processing fluency.

Full disclosure: I am an unpaid associate editor and columnist for The Psychologist and I have an unfamiliar first name – draw your own conclusions.

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