Regarding Cognitive Fluency

First, a nod to that inexplicably influential 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – Erving Goffman on the fundamental importance of having an agreed upon definition of the situation in any given social interaction, in order to give the interaction any kind of coherency, but also where all the parties involved are both audience members and performers simultaneously. Everyone tries to foster impressions that reflect well upon themselves. They encourage the others to accept their preferred definition of themselves, their somewhat fictional character, or role, and graciously play along with the flattering somewhat fictional characters each of the others has generated for themselves. Everyone wants to explain themselves, and present themselves as they wish to be seen. And it’s good, or at least gracious, to give the other guy a break and play along with his nonsense. So everyone plays along.

That’s pretty obvious. But sociology is about the obvious, after all. And yeah, the theater metaphor is cool, but the implications are a little troubling. It might be that there is no self at all, just what others let you get away with, or not. Extend what he’s saying and you might conclude that your self isn’t what you are at all, and in fact you might not have a self at all – no one does, as there’s no such thing. Who you are is what others generate for you, or allow you, in cooperative social interactions. Like Popeye the Sailor you can say I yam what I yam over and over and over, but if no one agrees, are you what you say you are, and who you think you are? So maybe we’re an interconnected collective and there is only the hive mind, not individual minds and self at all – you know, like the Borg. Goffman doesn’t go that far, but he was heading in that direction.

Now you don’t want to go around poking other people in the chest and sneering and telling them they don’t really exist as an individual at all, and neither do you, but the whole issue is how people think, isn’t it? And that’s always a puzzle.

And there was the second wife. She said she had always been a girly-girl. When she was little she’d cry when she had to wear jeans, always insisting on the frilly pink dress, and she loved that her family called her the princess. She even had her Barbie Doll collection years later, wrapped in tissue and boxed neatly and kept in a safe place. And of course she was coy and charming, and actually a lot of fun. She had spent a lifetime developing a role, and presenting a self that worked out well for her. Everyone agreed that she was the princess, the nice sort of princess, not the whining Upper East Side spoiled and vacuous entitled-to-everything sort, or the nasty Hollywood version. She meant no harm and was open and considerate of others. She was just… frilly. And of course everyone played along, and just like Goffman said, there was a great deal of theater to it. But she knew that. Sometimes she’d do a goof on the whole princess thing, just to show she knew what was really going on.

But it led to some odd thinking at this time of year, as the football season neared its end and the Super Bowl was at hand. You see, each week leading up to the Super Bowl she insisted that there was a way to tell which team was going to win. It was the helmets. The team with the prettiest or coolest helmets would win. So she’d cheer for the Cincinnati Bengals, as their helmets had those cool tiger stripes, or the Minnesota Vikings, with those white Viking horns or whatever on purple. She didn’t think much of the Colts, with that horseshoe on each side of the helmet, like someone kicked them in the head. And the Cleveland Browns were hopeless – plain brown, with nothing.

Was she kidding? No one knew. That was part of the deal, the social contract as it were. You could find the whole notion stupid and childish, and pathetically shallow or even pathologically shallow, or childlike and both charming and disarming, or slyly ironic and perhaps indicative of a barely-contained hostility toward the stupid sports obsession of men in general (subtle satiric feminism or something) – it was up to you. But, after all, this year things almost worked out for the Bengals and the Vikings. The other possibility is that she was onto something, as odd as that seems.

And that’s not so farfetched, as Drake Bennett recently explained in a Boston Globe item on cognitive fluency.

Okay, Cognitive Fluency sounds like one more addition to the array of psychobabble that has turned our minds into something like cottage cheese over the last several decades, but Bennett says there may be something to this, and he invokes something like the second wife and the football helmets:

Imagine that your stockbroker – or the friend who’s always giving you stock tips – called and told you he had come up with a new investment strategy. Price-to-earnings ratios, debt levels, management, competition, what the company makes, and how well it makes it, all those considerations go out the window. The new strategy is this: Invest in companies with names that are very easy to pronounce.

This would probably not strike you as a great idea. But, if recent research is to be believed, it might just be brilliant.

In fact, he reports that Cognitive Fluency is one of the hottest topics in psychology today, and it’s all about the fact that what’s easy thinking, or what some call lazy thing, or not thinking at all, is what we do most of the time:

Cognitive fluency is simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard. On the face of it, it’s a rather intuitive idea. But psychologists are only beginning to uncover the surprising extent to which fluency guides our thinking, and in situations where we have no idea it is at work.

And he finds that sometimes easy is true, in an odd way – shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names significantly outperform those with hard-to-pronounce names, for some reason. But maybe that’s a coincidence – correlation is not causation, as they say. That’s one of the basic logical errors we all fall into all too often. But there’s this:

Other studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally non-substantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities. Similar manipulations can get subjects to be more forgiving, more adventurous, and more open about their personal shortcomings.

So make it easy, whatever it is, and you can make it true, as what is true is of course what we agree is true, a social construct, just like the self in the Goffman book. And Bennett points out that cognitive fluency “is implicated in decisions about everything from the products we buy to the people we find attractive to the candidates we vote for – in short, in any situation where we weigh information.”

“Every purchase you make, every interaction you have, every judgment you make can be put along a continuum from fluent to disfluent,” says Adam Alter, a psychologist at the New York University Stern School who co-wrote the paper on fluency and stock prices. “If you can understand how fluency influences judgment, you can understand many, many, many different kinds of judgments better than we do at the moment.”

Now that is a goldmine, and Bennett reports that “scholars have already started to explore the ways that advertisers, educators, political campaigners, or anyone else in the business of persuasion can use these findings.” Perhaps you can hear the low rumble of fifty thousand new highly-paid consultants in the distance, drawing near. Are you ready for an all-day PowerPoint presentation on how to make what you have so cognitively fluent that everyone will want what you’ve got, or vote for your man or whatever? Is that worth paying a consultant fifteen grand a day? Perhaps it will be.

But Bennett says there are already surprises in the field:

For example, to get people to think through a question, it may be best to present it less clearly. And to boost your self-confidence, you may want to set out to write a dauntingly long list of all the reasons why you’re a failure.

Our sensitivity to – and affinity for – fluency is an adaptive shortcut. According to psychologists, it helps us apportion limited mental resources in a world where lots of things clamor for our attention and we have to quickly figure out which are worth thinking about.

The idea is to prime people to find shortcuts, and it seems that often the shortcut works surprisingly well, as that is just how we’re built:

If something feels notably easy to decipher, whether it’s a piece of text or the shape of an object or the particulars of a person’s face, there’s a good chance it’s because we’ve previously done the work of processing it, and that it’s something we’ve encountered before. Cognitive fluency signals familiarity – some psychologists argue that the eerie experience of déjà vu is simply when we’re fooled by the unexpected ease of taking in a piece of sensory information, and interpret that as a memory of having been there or seen it before.

An instinctive preference for the familiar made sense in the prehistoric environment in which our brains developed, psychologists hypothesize. Unfamiliar things – whether they were large woolly animals, plants we were thinking of eating, or fellow human beings – needed to be carefully evaluated to determine whether they were friend or foe. Familiar objects were those we’d already passed judgment on, so it made sense not to waste time and energy scrutinizing them.

That’s common sense, and the science confirms it:

According to Norbert Schwarz, a leading fluency researcher, the late psychologist Robert Zajonc used to explain the evolutionary logic behind this tendency succinctly. “He’d say, ‘If it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet.'”

“That gut feeling of familiarity determined by ease of processing is a very effective shorthand,” says Schwarz, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “Having to sit down and analyze every time whether something is familiar would not be a good idea.”

But there’s a catch:

Our bias for the familiar, however, can be triggered in settings where there’s little purpose to it. In the 1960s, Zajonc did a series of experiments that uncovered what he dubbed the “mere exposure” effect: He found that, with stimuli ranging from nonsense words to abstract geometric patterns to images of faces to Chinese ideographs (the test subjects, being non-Chinese speakers, didn’t know what the ideographs meant), all it took to get people to say they liked certain ones more than others was to present them multiple times.

If it’s not familiar, make it familiar – hammer it home. The goal is cognitive fluency. Easy is true.

And understand that people assign all sorts of specific characteristics to things that feel familiar, so they help do your work for you. And Bennett covers “beauty-in-averageness” effect – when asked to identify the most attractive example of something, people tend to choose “the most prototypical option.” When asked to identify the most appealing of a group of human faces, people invariable choose the one that is a composite of all the others, as consensus matters much more than Goffman ever imagined. And you can extend that concept all sorts of ways:

Studies have found a similar tendency when people are asked to identify what makes for an attractive dog or car or watch. Some psychologists suggest that much of what we perceive as beauty is just the fact that the most prototypical faces and dogs and watches are the easiest to process, because they share the most with all the other faces and dogs and watches that we’ve seen and stored in our perceptual inventory.

And that is all the more powerful because we’re unaware of any of this going on. And when you combine that with the ease with which psychologists can fool people into mistaking the sensation of fluency for actual familiarity, you can see why this field is hot, hot, hot. Bennett quotes one of the researchers saying this – “People are very sensitive to the experience of ease or difficulty, but very insensitive to where that feeling comes from.” They can be had. The consultant will, for a heavy fee, explain how.

And it may be something simple. If you’ve read this far you’ve reading this in 10-point Tahoma (or what your computer decided is close enough) with a whole lot of white space in the margins. And that matters:

When people read something in a difficult-to-read font, they unwittingly transfer that sense of difficulty onto the topic they’re reading about. Schwarz and his former student Hyunjin Song have found that when people read about an exercise regimen or a recipe in a less legible font, they tend to rate the exercise regimen more difficult and the recipe more complicated than if they read about them in a clearer font.

Playing with legibility can also change perceptions in subtler, less predictable ways. Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton University who also co-wrote the stocks and fluency paper, have found that when a personal questionnaire is presented in a less legible font, people tend to answer it less honestly than if it is written in a more legible one. Alter and two other psychologists, Simon Laham and Geoffrey Goodwin, also found that, when presenting people with written descriptions of moral transgressions, increasing the contrast between text and background to make it easier to read the description made people more forgiving.

To Alter, it’s a demonstration not so much of the power of fluency but of its opposite, what psychologists call “disfluency.” Even at the level of a trickier font, the experience of disfluency makes people wary and uncomfortable. That sensation, Alter argues, is enough to make them less forthcoming and also less forgiving in their moral judgments.

And yes, that triggers a sense of risk and concern, along with a sense that you’re just not in the mood to forgive anyone anything. It seems page layout matters a great deal. Yep, what you’re reading on this very page right now is reasonable and insightful and pleasantly hopeful, as it looks so familiar and cozy or something. That too is rather obvious of course, with a new name, cognitive fluency. And Bennett goes on to cover the research on rhyming (it helps) and repetition (it helps) and how, a variation on this “creating a sense of disfluency in potential consumers is likely to make them see a product as less familiar, it also makes them see it as more innovative.”

But Bennett notes things work the other way too. There seems to be a relationship between mood and the desire for fluency – happy people are less interested in familiar, fluent stimuli than sad people. But of course when we’re unhappy we seek out stability and a sense of safety. When we’re happy we’re more open to the unfamiliar. Oh hell, Republicans know that instinctively, as happy and hopeful Americans elected that Obama fellow. But they’ll fix that. They tell you how unhappy you really are, even if you don’t feel that way now – and repetition and rhyme will work just fine. And they know another thing these researchers confirmed in experiments. If you’re going to make a list of everything that’s wrong – Obama’s faults perhaps – or a list of what’s great about Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck – keep the list short, no more than three or four items. That makes folks feel the comfort of cognitive fluency. They’ll get something done about it.

There’s nothing new here, perhaps, save for what Bennett says is the main point in all this – “The human brain, for all its power, is suspicious of difficulty, but perhaps we can learn to use that.”

But has anyone ever doubted that the human brain is suspicious of difficulty? Ask any teacher who’s ever lived about that. All this cognitive fluency research seems to be about no more than verifying and quantifying that innate suspicion of difficulty, through carefully controlled double-blind behavioral and psychometric studies. It’s backfilling the obvious with interesting and useful detail. Marketing folks and political advisors should eat this up. They can fine-tune their campaigns. And it will all sound so very familiar.

But that still doesn’t tell us who will win the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s all in the helmets, and maybe not.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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