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Aaron Dalton

Empirical Editors: Fluency

Six people of varying ethnicities and genders thinking (expressed by question marks surrounding each of their heads).

This article is part of a series that looks at lessons one can draw from some of the research collected in Aaron Dalton’s Empirical Research for Editors” list

Six people of varying ethnicities and genders thinking (expressed by question marks surrounding each of their heads).
Aleksandra Sabelskaia © 123RF.com

“Fluency” refers to how easy or difficult it is to do or process something. I interpret the science in this area through the lens of plain language, since its goal is to maximize fluency. Plain language writing is something the audience can ideally understand the first time they read it. The science in this area explains why this is a good strategy.

Decision-making

In the article “Preference Fluency in Choice,” the authors find that when even minor factors make it harder to form a preference, the reader is more likely to defer a decision or choose a compromise. For example, using a difficult-to-read font made it more likely that the reader would postpone their decision.

Risk assessment

In the article “If It’s Difficult to Pronounce, It Must Be Risky: Fluency, Familiarity, and Risk Perception,” authors build on the understanding that the more familiar something is, the less risky we believe it to be. Using difficult-to-pronounce words fosters the impression that something is unfamiliar, and so we assess it as riskier. For example, ostensible food additives were rated as more harmful when their names were difficult to pronounce than when their names were easy to pronounce.

Affective judgments (liking)

In the article “Effects of Perceptual Fluency on Affective Judgments,” the authors studied the ways in which perceptual fluency (the subjective feeling that something is easy to understand) affects judgment. Increased perceptual fluency leads to “increased judgments of prettiness and liking and decreased judgments of ugliness and disliking of stimuli.”

Similarly, a study out of MIT and Microsoft, “The Aesthetics of Reading,” observed that high-quality typography improved the mood of study participants, who then performed better in assessments than those who had to read poor-quality typography.

Morality

In the article “Easy on the Mind, Easy on the Wrongdoer: Discrepantly Fluent Violations Are Deemed Less Morally Wrong,” the authors looked at how fluency affected judgments of moral violations. If the moral violation was made more difficult to read, the reader rated the violation as more wrong, and vice versa.

Analytical thinking

You may have heard of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow where he talks about two modes of thought: the fast, instinctive and emotional mode, and the slower, more deliberate mode. The article “Overcoming intuition: Metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning” observes that if something is difficult to process (disfluent), it serves as an alarm that activates analytic forms of reasoning.

Author intelligence

The wonderfully named article “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” attempts to debunk the theory shared by many undergraduates that increasing the complexity of their vocabulary gives the impression that they’re more intelligent. Over five experiments, the author showed the opposite to be true.

Truth

Most importantly, several articles looked at the effect of fluency on impressions of truth. In short, the more fluent and easier to understand something is, the more likely it is that the reader will perceive it to be true.

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Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Empirical Editors: Curse of Knowledge

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4 Comments on “Empirical Editors: Fluency”

  • Gael Spivak

    says:

    Thanks, Aaron. This information is even more important right now, when it’s harder to concentrate (or be motivated) due to the pandemic.

  • Cindy Johnson

    says:

    Thanks, Aaron. I spend a lot of time with doctors and mechanical/electrical engineers. Needless to say, I’m familiar with what you have to say, and I’ll try harder to invisibly teach and diligently learn! Great article!

  • Anne Brennan

    says:

    Thanks for writing this, Aaron. It’s always good to have more arguments in favour of plain language.

    My favourite is a quote attributed to Einstein that says if you can’t explain it so your grandmother would understand it, you don’t understand it well enough yourself.

  • Frances Peck

    says:

    Thanks for this tremendous (and clear) summary of evidence-based resources, Aaron. It’s perfect for sharing with writers who are skeptical about the benefits of plain language.

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