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How Cognitive Fluency Influences Who and What We Like

Back in the 1960s, researchers conducted a series of experiments in which they discovered the more people were exposed to certain words, patterns, or images of faces, the more they liked them. Since then, we’ve generated a wealth of evidence that we tend to favor things that are familiar or easy to understand even if there is no logical basis for the preference. The ease with which people process information plays an important role in human judgment and decision-making. In fact, fluency affects judgments over and above cognitive content.

As amazing as the human brain is, in its quest for efficiency, it can be lazy, and its default is to manage the most information in the easiest way possible. When we assess evidence, arguments, and people, we often draw conclusions based on feelings rather than facts. Cognitive fluency plays a big role in influencing relevant judgments such as truth, credibility, and trust.

It explains why people with simple names that are easy to pronounce are judged more positively at first impressions than people with more difficult names. It also explains why fake news is so tough to combat. The more frequent the story, the more familiar it becomes. The more familiar it is, the more believable it becomes.

In the brain, easy to comprehend also translates as more likeable. In a New York University study, researchers found that people who have names that are easy to pronounce are judged more positively than people with names that are difficult to pronounce. In that same study, researchers examined whether name pronunciation ease would influence voting preferences for candidates in a mock ballot. Participants ranked fluent names significantly higher than disfluent names indicated a preference for candidates with easy-to-pronounce names.

Researchers also found that this phenomenon extended to professional success. Specifically, they examined the names of 500 American lawyers collected from the websites of ten U.S. firms varying in size from the largest firm to the 178th largest firm. Their analysis showed that lawyers with easily pronounced names occupied higher positions within their firm than those with names that were difficult to pronounce. This effect was consistent regardless of firm size, firm ranking, or mean-associate salary.

Other studies show that fluent statements seem truer than disfluent statements, statements written in easy-to-read font inspire more confidence than fonts that are harder to read, and easier to process text is perceived to have been written by a more intelligent author.

Because of the psychology of cognitive fluency, short and simple brand names that are easy to pronounce have a built-in advantage over brands with longer, difficult names. In a book entitled Drunk Tank Pink, psychologist Adam Alter describes research that shows the names of financial stocks that are more easy to pronounce outperform less easily pronounced financial stocks and more familiar stocks outperform unfamiliar stocks.

The readability of text can also affect people’s perception of credibility. In one study, researchers asked people to view unfamiliar statements in both light-colored fonts and dark-colored fonts. Because there was greater contrast between the dark font and the light background, it was easier to read. People rated those statements as more truthful than the statements printed in the lighter font.

The research is clear: There are subtle psychological cues that make a huge difference in the perception of effort. This ease or difficulty refers not only to the experience of a task or instruction itself, but the way we feel about that task.

If you want to persuade someone to do something - buy a product, consider an alternative perspective or read a report – keep the K.I.S.S. rule in mind (Keep It Simple, Stupid). If it’s hard to read or understand, the brain automatically assumes it’s hard to do. The easier information is to process or the more familiar it is to us, the more we are inclined to like it, believe it and trust it.


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Happier Hour with Einstein by Melissa Hughes

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