Bias #6: Cognitive Fluency, 4-minute read
Cognitive Fluency: The ease with which our brains process information. The easier information is to process, the more we are inclined to like it, find it attractive, and believe it to be true.
O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, famously said, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Well, the glove didn’t fit, and the jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty of murdering his wife and her boyfriend. Believe it or not, Johnny Cochran’s rhyming may deserve some of the credit for the final verdict. But, why?
Because the jurors were human.
Our brains love shortcuts and often apply heuristics (rules of thumb) to make decisions. The easier it is for us to wrap our heads around a new concept, the more likely we are to perceive the concept as reasonable, probable, and true—that is the importance of cognitive fluency.
Things that are fluent (rhyming) feel familiar, and our minds strongly associate familiarity with truth. So, rhyming can subliminally influence our judgment of a statement as truthful. Cognitive fluency also leads us to believe that the simplest explanation must be correct, and to rely on social consensus—our assumption that if many people believe something, it must be true.
Studies have found that the stocks of companies with easy-to-pronounce names outperform the shares from companies whose names are difficult to say.1
Research also shows that when exercise instructions are easy to read (with clearly legible font and contrast), people assume the exercise will take less time to complete.2
Social psychologists Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwartz summarize cognitive fluency this way: “People attend to the dynamics of their own information processing and are highly sensitive to the resulting feelings of ease or difficulty. … Hence, any variable that facilitates or impairs fluent information processing can profoundly affect people’s judgments and decisions. Communicators and educators are therefore well advised to present information in a form that facilitates easy processing: if it’s easy to read, it seems easy to do, pretty, good, and true.”2
When to use cognitive fluency:
Cognitive fluency affects any information you communicate and any audience you aim to reach. Always ask yourself these questions when crafting a message:
Is your message easy to see?
Is it easy to hear?
Is it easy to read?
Is it easy to understand?
Then, simply adjust your message until you achieve your desired outcome.
How to use cognitive fluency:
1. If you want people to agree with or adopt something, optimize it for cognitive fluency. Use clear fonts, conversational phrases, visual contrast, rhyming, etc.—you could even turn it into a song!
2. If you want people to be skeptical, cautious, or more analytical about something, make the communication cognitively disfluent—use unexpected sentence syntax, script fonts, reduce contrast between the type and the background—anything that makes the information more challenging to process.
4. Test your content with your target audience to see if they find it fluent.
Cognitive fluency impacts our perception of everything—from the statements we believe to the people we find attractive. Many principles of behavioral science, psychology, UX, etc. leverage cognitive fluency to communicate effectively. So, next time you think of using the rhyme-as-reason effect, social proof, or familiarity, keep in mind the undercurrent of cognitive fluency and its impact on how your audience receives your message.
About the author:
This Bias Brief was written by Greg Stielstra, the Senior Director of Behavioral Science at Lirio. Greg is a behavior change expert and published author with over 25 years of experience in marketing and engagement.
- Princeton University, Study: Stock performance tied to ease of pronouncing company’s name
- The British Psychological Society, If it’s easy to read, it’s easy to do, pretty, good, and true