Post No.: 0303
‘Fluency’ or ‘cognitive ease’ is the ease with which something is cognitively processed, and results in heuristics such as ‘simple means true’ or ‘easy means best’. People prefer, and prefer to trust, things that are easy to think about, to understand and/or accept, to those that are hard. People tend to (fallaciously) think something that’s easy to remember must be truer than something that isn’t – for instance, ‘rhyme as reason’, when this is a poor logical argument. “He who smelt it dealt it” doesn’t even make any sense – especially when it’s also said that, “He who denied it supplied it.” Woof!
Catchy quotes are also generally over-trusted but they elicit fluency precisely because they’re catchy, are usually personally selected as favourites when they confirm one’s biases, and are typically attributed to famous people who may have been sage in one area and at one time but not in all areas and at all times (hence it’s an ad hominem fallacy to rely on ‘who said something’ rather than critically analysing ‘what was said’).
Simple explanations tend to be more believable – but they’re often over-simplifications e.g. over-generalised stereotypes. Pop science, ‘fun facts’ and even complex issues like economics and politics presented via short social media posts are often easy to absorb precisely because they over-simplify things e.g. pop psychology in the areas of body language meanings, lie detection and how many hours it takes until one becomes an expert at something.
However, fluency is a relatively subtle effect (like many cognitive effects in psychology) – if something is blatantly nonsense or contradicts facts that the audience already knows then it won’t be believed. People aren’t infinitely stupid or gullible. But subtle effects can add up.
One of system one’s functions is to continually assess the environment and determine whether extra effort is required from system two, and one way of determining this is by measuring fluency – if something seems easy or comfortable e.g. there are no perceived threats, no problems, no major news, no need to redirect attention, it’s a repeated experience, a primed idea, the display is clear, it feels familiar, feels true, feels good, is attractive or effortless, or one is in a good mood, then system one doesn’t call on the critical thinking of system two.
The consequence of this is that cognitively easier information is more casually accepted and superficially believed without question. Fluency leads system two to happily and lazily accept the intuitive belief supplied by system one – but the illusion of truth just because something is easy to process is prone to fallibility. Something simple can be true – but not because it is simple.
Fluency plays a big part in how we weigh information and make decisions, including our feelings of attraction, belief or fear. This means that people who rely on instinctive assessments, which are easier processes than using deliberate and effortful analyses, may fall for the wrong things/people or get conned. Fluency is used extensively in persuasion and advertising, such as via pithy and catchy sound bites or political campaign slogans (e.g. ‘taking back our country’ or ‘making it great again’). People also tend to buy more if a supermarket is easy to navigate.
People have a disturbing capacity to believe in whatever they want to believe because believing in whatever one wants to believe is attractive, comfortable and cognitively easy. Fluency is associated with good feelings too – something easy (e.g. an easy question or a familiar name) makes us feel smart and happy, which may make us associate these things, people or companies with other favourable attributes too. This is related to the ‘halo effect’ – you can anticipate that an audience will judge a physically attractive and confident speaker’s comments more favourably than he/she or his/her comments deserve. Companies with easier-to-pronounce names tend to perform better at first, although this effect disappears over time; but stocks with easier-to-pronounce names (e.g. KAR) tend to statistically outperform those with awkward names (e.g. PXG) and appear to retain a small advantage over some time.
Conversely, if system one senses a surprise, threat, strain and/or one is in a bad mood then it indicates a problem and system two is called upon to give a critical eye – and as a consequence you become more vigilant, less gullible, less impulsive and you’ll invest more effort in deciding what to do. You’ll feel less comfortable, less intuitive and less confident but you’ll likely make fewer errors. Your guard is up but this is more stressful, and creativity, speed and a good mood may be sacrificed.
‘Cognitive strain’, or a lack of ease, is affected by both the current level of effort applied to a situation and the presence of unmet demands. The lack of cognitive fluency may mean that we dismiss a business plan or CV just because the font is hard to read. Like all associations, associations with ease or strain are reciprocal, so in a state of cognitive strain, you’re likely to not be in a good mood and won’t like what you see – and cognitive strain will also cause the use of system two, and using system two will cause the feeling of cognitive strain. We all kind of know from experience that it’s not a good time to ask for a favour from someone when they’re busy, even when that favour pertains to something to be done on another day when you know they won’t be busy; and fancy business lunches are used to try to get prospective clients in a good mood in order to hopefully negotiate a favourable deal with them, even though a pleasant meal should really have no bearing on what’s really on the table in a multimillion-dollar deal. But our emotions help guide our decisions, and we’re more likely to agree with some future plan if we’re currently feeling good, all else being equal.
Fluency functions because simple ideas make us feel like we really understand something i.e. they make us feel clever rather than stupid, and it feels better to feel like we’re clever rather than stupid or useless hence we tend to gravitate towards (overly) simplistic views, ideas or explanations, such as that everything has only one cause and every problem has only one solution for it. Over-simple worldviews also allow people to hold instant opinions and answers to things without having to put in the effort to learn about a problem on a case-by-base basis from scratch. Always, as a default position, being for or against a particular broad idea (e.g. government interference is always to blame when markets fail, or conversely the government must step in after every problem) makes one blind to alternative ideas that don’t fit into one’s comforting worldviews. But reality is actually extremely complicated, especially the human world, hence we must ditch our over-simplistic perspectives and periodically experience cognitive strain if we want to truly understand reality.
A lack of fluency or cognitive ease is uncomfortable, unfamiliar and is associated with alarm, danger, risk and concern, especially for those who are feeling unconfident or down, hence people tend to stick to what’s familiar and aren’t as adventurous when they’re feeling low (e.g. seeking familiar comfort foods and nostalgia). We’re overly suspicious of difficulty, and overly trusting of ease. Applying effort to study or learn, or truly facing challenging views head-on, is against fluency and so stands in the way of allowing us to feel (arrogantly) clever and elevated about ourselves. Stuff that mentally challenges us causes aversive feelings, but this is how we learn. Fluency was implicated in the context of passively absorbing media such as a few short videos and thinking that one understands the material or subject as well as one thinks, in Post No.: 0214. Another problem with all this is that people tend to stick to their own echo chambers because hearing the same stuff over and over again elicits fluency. Therefore ‘confirmation bias’ is related to fluency – if something seems strongly associated with other preferences or beliefs we already hold as true, or comes from a source we’ve trusted or liked before, then we’ll feel a sense of furry fluency and it’ll be easy to accept that thing without question.
There are various reasons for the feeling of ease, including something’s familiarity or presentation, the weather is nice or we just happen to be in a good mood, or someone is attractive and has a clear or friendly voice. But we often do not know the source of our impressions and we have no simple way of tracing our impressions and feelings to their true sources e.g. did it come from a genuine memory or a primed idea? Something can feel fluent because it is commonly believed and true, but not everything that is fluent is true because other things could’ve influenced its fluency, and false urban myths or false ‘fun facts’ can reinforce and propagate in a culture simply because successive people think that something ‘must be true because they’ve heard it repeated many times before’ and/or believe ‘so many people can’t be wrong’ (the ad populum fallacy). Many feelings have multiple or ambiguous potential causes or sources and we often confuse which exact cause or source caused a particular feeling. And system two isn’t usually aware of what system one is thinking or doing because our intuitions operate below or beyond our conscious awareness.
In the end, the lessons are, if you want to be more persuasive or make a subject seem easier – do things to increase fluency or reduce cognitive strain e.g. make the font of the text clear, large and bold to improve its legibility, print on high-quality paper, maximise the contrast of the words to the background, use simpler language wherever possible (presenting familiar ideas with pretentious jargon is actually taken by most people as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility), make it rhyme or flow well in order to make it catchy and memorable, use names that are easy to pronounce, have it presented by someone the audience already trusts and likes (hence celebrity endorsements are powerful). All else being equal, the more already well known, clearer, attractively presented, simpler to understand option is more likely to be believed – so make your messages simple and easily memorable.
Conversely, if you want people to slow down and think through a problem more deeply and carefully rather than think of the intuitive answer – purposely trigger cognitive strain e.g. present the text less clearly by using a barely legible font, use longer sentences and paragraphs. Cognitive strain, whatever its source, will mobilise analytic system two, which is more likely to reject the gut-instinct answer suggested by system one. (The posts in this blog intend to make people think more deeply and critically, to offer something different to most blogs, hence I’m not afraid of using longer sentences and paragraphs.) The only risk though is that people may actually give up reading or listening to something because they personally find it mentally challenges them too much – we cannot force people to put the cognitive effort in to learn and understand something! The market nowadays generally wants easy-to-absorb stuff like videos, lots of images, gifs and short posts, but this contributes to an over-simplistic, dumbed-down landscape of information that leads to strong divides of beliefs. Writing more nuanced arguments results in relatively lengthier posts, and reading and understanding more nuanced arguments requires relatively more effort.
Woof. Learning about psychology in general can lead us to be more intellectually armed and aware of the deliberate or unwitting tricks that others may use to try to persuade us to believe in something or to purchase something, so that we can defend ourselves from them. It can therefore also teach us how to exploit these tricks to be more persuasive towards others. How you wish to use the knowledge you gain is up to you!