An effective way to be more persuasive is to make your communications cognitively fluent.
What is Cognitive Fluency?
Cognitive Fluency is how easy it is to think about something — something that is easy to think about is “fluent” while things that are harder to think about are “disfluent.” Cognitive Fluency is an important concept to know because people prefer those things that are easy to think about and familiar.
Why Does it Matter?
Cognitive Fluency influences all sorts of judgments we make without us even realizing it. According to Professor Adam Alter of NYU, “every purchase you make, every interaction you have, every judgment you make can be put along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. 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.”
Cognitive Fluency Examples:
- Shares of companies with easy to pronounce names did better in the weeks following their IPO than harder to pronounce companies. Link to study.
- The font you use matters. Two examples: (1) Questionnaires printed in a harder-to-read font were answered less honestly than when printed in an easier-to-read font. (2) A study out of the University of Michigan found an exercise routine reproduced in an easy-to-read font was perceived as less difficult than when the routine was reprinted in a difficult-to-read font. Here’s the exercise program in the two fonts:
- Things that are familiar seem less risky. “People perceive technologies, investments and leisure activities as less risky the more familiar they are with them.” Source. In one study, researchers found that people thought made-up food additives with harder to pronounce names (e.g. Hnegripitrom) were more dangerous than easy-to-pronounce ones (e.g. Magnalroxate). Similarly, people perceived difficult to pronounce amusement rides as more exciting (and more nausea inducing) than easy-to-pronounce rides. There’s an evolutionary reason for this which the late psychologist Robert Zajonc summarized as: “If it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet.”
- Statements that are fluent are judged to be true. A fascinating example of this comes from a study that asked participants about whether various aphorisms were true. Aphorisms that rhymed where deemed more true than ones that didn’t. For example, “what sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals” was judged to be more accurate than the modified version that did not preserve rhyme: “what sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks”. Similarly, “Woes unite foes” and “caution and measure will win you treasure” were deemed more truthful than their non-rhyming counterparts of “woes unite enemies” and “waution and measure will win you riches.” Rhyming isn’t the only thing that makes statements more fluent; familiarity also leads to fluency. As I wrote about in a prior IFOD about the mere exposure effect, the more we are exposed to an idea or statement the more we like it and the more fluent it is to us. This matters because we view things that are more familiar as being more likely to be true. Thus, ideas, statements and words that are fluent are subliminally judged to be true.
How Can We Use Cognitive Fluency to Our Benefit?
We humans are sensitive to feelings of ease or difficulty but we don’t usually realize where these feelings come from and thus “misattribute the experienced ease or difficulty to whatever is the focus of [our] attention.” Source. So, when you make your communications fluent you can reap the subliminal benefits of making things easy for your reader. Repetition, clarity, and simplicity increase fluency and increase the persuasiveness and perceived truth of a message.
For example, a website with menus in the expected location and links that are easy to use will be a fluent website. Likewise, written communications in an easy-to-read font will be more fluent than a less readable font. (Here’s an IFOD on fonts that got a ton of clicks: What Does Your Font Say About You?) Use of jargon or obscure words detract from fluency.
Sometimes, however, we may want our message to be disfluent if we want our reader to stop and think. According to Professor Alter, disfluency “sets up a cognitive roadblock and makes people think, and it triggers a sense of risk and concern.” For example, students who were presented with the following question in a more difficult font answered the question with a higher success rate than students who read the question in an easy-to-read font:
The answer to this question is here (it’s not $0.10).
In this societal moment when we are discussing questions of race and culture, it may be worth pointing out that even people’s names fall into the familiar=safe/different=unsafe dichotomy. When reading an article and seeing a person’s name that is hard to pronounce or not what that given reader would thing of as a “normal” name can lead many of us to subconsciously think things we really have no basis for thinking.