Why easy-to-read is easy to like – what science tells us about the remarkable benefits of simplicity

From Orwell to Twain to today's government style guides, writing experts have long championed a clear and simple style. Yet many of us defy the experts, deliberately choosing fancy words and complex constructions – perhaps believing that this makes us look more intelligent.

Princeton psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer pitted the experts against the thesaurus-wielders with a famed 2006 study (1). In a series of three experiments, participants were given a simple or complex version of a single passage and asked to rate both the writer's intelligence and their own ease of understanding.

Simple is smart

In all three experiments, people who read the simple version of the text thought its author was smarter. Even authors with stellar reputations got the simplicity bonus: readers given a less complex translation from Rene Descartes's Meditation IV rated him as more intelligent, regardless of whether the excerpt was attributed or presented anonymously.

Intelligence ratings of the authors of two different translations of Descartes Meditation IV, when attributed either to Descartes or to an anonymous author

Even the father of modern Western philosophy takes a hit for needless complexity! Source: (1)

Even the father of modern Western philosophy takes a hit for needless complexity! Source: (1)

The benefits of simplicity also carried over into hypothetical decision-making, Oppenheimer found. When they were asked to assess a college admission essay, readers given the simple version were more likely to say they thought the applicant should be admitted into the course.

Oppenheimer made a splash with his research paper, which he playfully titled 'Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly'. It won him an Ig Noble Prize for research that makes people 'laugh, and then think', and sparked reams of commentary (today, a Google search for the paper nets almost 5,000 hits). I'm guessing that the title played some part in the paper's success, because in fact, the findings themselves weren't anything new in his field.

And simple is good, true and easy to do

Oppenheimer attributed the outcomes of his experiments to the well-studied effects of 'processing fluency': the subjective ease of processing a stimulus or, in everyday terms, how easy it feels to understand something. Cognitive psychologists have done a great deal of work to investigate the effects of different kinds of fluency in a range of settings. Often, like Oppenheimer, they've done this by manipulating language or design features in an experimental stimulus – playing with things like font choice and size; colour contrast; word length; pronunciation difficulty; and the orientation, complexity, familiarity and visual clarity of photos, icons and drawings. They've also studied how repetition of words or phrases affects perceptions via fluency.

With remarkable consistency, these studies have shown that people like things that are easy to understand. And it goes even further – we don't just like fluent things, we also tend to judge them more positively in all kinds of ways. Experimenters have found, for example, that:

  • jokes are funnier when people have been pre-exposed to key words from the punchline (2)
  • recipes appear easier to follow – and people are more motivated to try them – when they're presented in a clear font (3)
  • people seem more similar, likeable, trustworthy and compatible when their social media profiles use good colour contrast and correctly sized pop-ups (4)
  • wine tastes better if the label is in an easy-to-read font (5)
  • products are more desirable when they are pictured facing inwards and towards the centre (6)
  • well-formatted disclosures in clearer language are more trusted by investors – even though less fluent disclosures are equally well understood (7)
  • simple, plain English health guidelines are preferred by patients and seem easier to implement (8).

There's also evidence that the effects found in the laboratory carry over into real-world phenomena. Songs with more repetitive lyrics are more likely to debut in the top 40 and rise rapidly to the top of the chart (9), and incredibly, stocks with fluent names outperform disfluent stocks in the share market (10). Some researchers are now arguing that fluency – or the lack of it – even goes some way towards explaining how racism and other types of prejudice arise (11).

Why is fluency so powerful?

Each day, humans make thousands of judgements and decisions, typically without full information or a lot of time for reflection. It’s impossible to investigate and calculate everything precisely, so we rely on mental rules of thumb, known as ‘heuristics’, to help us make fast and effortless judgements.

Fluency is one of these mental shortcuts. When something is easy to understand, psychologists believe, we use this experience of ease as a piece of data to inform our judgements about other aspects of the thing – such as whether it's true and how much we like it. Strictly speaking, this isn't rational: we're using one piece of information to make a judgement about something else. But in the grand scheme of things, heuristics help us to get by, efficiently making the huge number of more-or-less good decisions that carry us through daily life.

When fluency isn't enough

Of course, there are limits to fluency's power. For one thing, fluency only helps when we're uncertain. This makes a lot of sense – I know that the sky is blue, so it's irrelevant that I can easily understand the phrase the sky is red. I don't need extra cues to assess that claim.

People will also actively disregard fluency cues in particular circumstances. Bad moods make people more vigilant and less susceptible to the 'truth effect' (12) – as does being told in advance about the effects of a particular fluency technique (1, 7). We also ignore processing difficulty when we can clearly see that it's caused by something irrelevant. Another of Oppenheimer's experiments found that when a document was difficult to read because of a 'low toner' printout, readers actually overcompensated, evaluating the text as hard to read but the author as more intelligent!  

Fluency, plain English and document design

All of this research adds up to a compelling rationale for plain English writing and good document design. When your messages are easy to understand, they have a head start… you might even say it's an unfair advantage.

No wonder that it's people with something to sell – be it a pop song or a political message – who seem most interested in fluency. It's easy to see why so many fluency studies are published in marketing and retail journals, and to understand why politicians seem increasingly wedded to simple language and repetitive sound bites. Obviously, not all content deserves the sheen of authenticity that clear writing and good design can give it.

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I don't like to see plain English and good design used to manipulate or mislead, but in today's attention economy, they're essential tools for getting worthy information over the line. It's reassuring to know that when the content you want to share is true and reasonable and fair, extra effort spent presenting it well will help readers to recognise it for what it is.

Sources

  1. DM Oppenheimer (2006) 'Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly', Applied Cognitive Psychology 20: 139–156.
  2. S Topolinski (2014) 'A processing fluency-account of funniness: Running gags and spoiling punchlines', Cognition and Emotion 28(5): 811–820.
  3. H Song and N Schwarz (2008) 'If it's hard to read, it's hard to do: Processing fluency affects effort prediction and motivation', Psychological Science 19(10): 986–988.
  4. NA Merola (2014) We like people who are easy to read: The influence of processing fluency in impression formation, PhD thesis, University of Texas.
  5. A Gmuer et al (2015) 'Does wine label processing fluency influence wine hedonics?Food Quality and Preference 44: 12–16.
  6. Leonhardt et al (2015) 'Is your product facing the ad's center? Facing direct affects processing fluency and ad evaluation', Journal of Advertising 44(4): 315–325.
  7. K Rennekamp (2012) 'Processing fluency and investors' reactions to disclosure readability', Journal of Accounting Research 50(5): 1319–1354.
  8. S Michie & K Lester (2005) 'Words matter: increasing the implementation of clinical guidelines', Quality & Safety in Health Care 14:367–370.
  9. JC Nunes et al (2015) 'The power of repetition: repetitive lyrics in a song increase processing fluency and drive market success', Journal of Consumer Psychology25(2): 187–199.
  10. AL Alter and DM Oppenheimer (2006) 'Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluency', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS) 103(24):9369–9372.
  11. HW Owen et al (2016) 'Johnny Depp, reconsidered: How category-relative processing fluency determines the appeal of gender ambiguity', PLoS ONE 11(2) e0146328.
  12. A Holman (2013) 'Affect intensity and processing fluency of deterrents', Cognition and Emotion 27(8): 1421–1431.