A common characteristic of knowledge based work is the need to deal with complex, novel situations. Frequently, a professional is confronted with a situation that involves assessment, analysis, and ultimately a judgement and/or decision. Typical decisions could involve a vendor, a product, a project or an employee. A common thread running through these decisions is an inherent lack of certainty:
- Do I have enough data to make the decision?
- Do I have enough personal expertise and experience to analyze the data correctly?
- Do I trust the source of the information?
Most people think of themselves as rational actors. We believe that we fairly weigh the information presented to us and analyze it logically. We like to think that we are free of biases and can not be influenced by irrelevant details. Unfortunately, our decision making is a complex interplay of conscious and unconscious factors. Decades of scientific research has demonstrated that people can be influenced by a host of extraneous issues when making judgements or decisions.
One fascinating area of study is a phenomenon that researchers call processing fluency. Simply put, processing fluency is the ease by which individuals can understand information that is presented to them. Numerous studies have demonstrated that more easily processed information is perceived more positively and is more believable. While this is interesting in itself, the more surprising finding is how simply the fluency of a situation can be manipulated.
A simple way to alter processing fluency is to make information more or less easy to read. That was the technique used in a 1999 study by Reber and Schwartz. The study presented subjects with a series of trivial facts that most people could not easily verify. An example of a fact would be “Orsono is a city in Chile”. Some facts were presented with a printed background that had a strong contrast to the color used for the font. Other facts were presented with a background that had a weak contrast, making them more difficult to read. Subjects were more likely to believe the fact was true when it was presented against a background with a clearer contrast.
In a variation on this theme, Song and Schwarz conducted a similar study in 2008. In this case, rather than contrast, fonts with different readability were utilized. Subjects were presented with an exercise routine printed in easy and difficult to read fonts. They were asked how long the routine would take, how “quick” it would feel, and whether it would flow naturally or feel boring. Subjects who received the easier to read font estimated the routine would take less time, feel quicker and flow more naturally. They were also significantly more interested in performing the exercise routine.
As part of the same study, Song and Schwarz presented a recipe in both easy and hard to read fonts. Subjects were then asked how long it would take to prepare the dish and whether they would be interested in attempting the recipe. As with the exercise routine, subjects presented with the “easy” font estimated the dish would be prepared much faster and were more interested in attempting to make it. The differences were not trivial. On average, those presented with the “easy” font estimated the recipe would take 22.71 minutes. Those subjects viewing the hard to read font estimated a completion time of 36.15 minutes.
People can also be influenced by how clearly they hear a message. In one study, subjects listened to trivial facts presented by native English speakers as well as people with varying degrees of accents. The facts presented were similar to those in the 1999 Reber and Schwartz study. The subjects were told in advance that the presenters were merely reading from a set of prepared cards and were not stating their personal opinions. Subjects were more likely to believe the facts presented by native speakers. They were least likely to believe the facts presented by those with the heaviest accents.
A more subtle way that processing fluency influences judgements is through familiarity. For example, the more often we are exposed to a piece of information, the more likely we are to believe it is true. In a novel study, subjects were presented with trivia as in the Reber and Schwartz study. This time, they were brought back on two subsequent occasions and tested again. Some of the presented facts were duplicates from the prior experiments. Those facts that were presented previously were more likely to be deemed true. Researchers again feel that there is a link to processing fluency. Those facts that are heard multiple times are easier to understand, again, making them more believable.
This familiarity effect can take place even when an individual is not consciously aware of being previously exposed to an item. In a study done in 1980, a technique known as sub-conscious priming was used to demonstrate this phenomenon. A series of 10 shapes were rapidly flashed on a screen, too fast for conscious perception. Afterwards, 10 pairs of shapes were shown to the subject. In each pair was a shape previously seen and a brand new one. The subject was asked to guess which shape they had seen previously, and which shape they preferred. The subjects were unable to identify previously seen shapes at better than chance (i.e. 50%). However, they indicated a preference for the shape that had been subliminally flashed at them.
Applying the Research
How can an awareness of processing fluency help you in your professional life? Let’s start with delivery of messages. Simple, clear messages will be more believable and more likely to resonate positively with recipients. Let’s look at two examples. In the area of user experience, websites with easier to read fonts, better contrasting colors and simplified, uncluttered layouts should be better received. Corporate presentations will also benefit from simplified, readable formats.
As the recipient of messages, you must look past your innate tendency to dismiss messages based on their complexity or unclear delivery. Remember that the quality of presentation is not necessarily indicative of the accuracy or value of the information being conveyed.
An ironic element of processing fluency is that “disfluent” messages can cause people to think more critically about a statement. In a separate study, Schwarz and Song asked subjects “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?” (The answer is “none” – It was Noah, not Moses on the Ark.) When the question was posed in a difficult to read font, subjects were more likely to get the question right!
The researchers concluded that the difficult font made the subjects pause, rather than relying on a knee jerk response that was incorrect. The takeaway from this research is that making a message more difficult to read (i.e. more disfluent), could be useful for encouraging more critical thinking. This could be utilized where a problem is being presented, as opposed to the communication of a message or idea.