Drake Bennett published an article in the Boston Globe’s online edition titled Easy=True: How ‘cognitive fluency’ shapes what we believe, how we invest, and who will become a supermodel. He cites psychological research on cognitive fluency, defined as the measure of how easy it is to think about something. This research indicates that fluency impacts what we buy, what we believe, who we vote for and how we feel about others.
Researchers believe that fluency is adaptive, that it helps us be successful as a species. For example, fluency includes a preference for the familiar. This ensured that we ate familiar (nonpoisonous) plants and avoided unfamiliar, dangerous creatures.
The problems with fluency occur when we don’t factor it into the ways we process messages and communicate with others. We can be unaware of the influence of fluency on our own judgments, and we can miss opportunities to utilize fluency when we want to share information with others.
How can cognitive fluency work for you?
To “sell” your message, keep it simple. Ideas that are easier to think about are more memorable and more believable. Use simple terminology that is familiar to your audience. People will not only remember it more easily, they will be more prone to believe it. Rhyming phrases are more believable than those that don’t rhyme, even if the words mean the same thing.
Use repetition. Seeing or hearing something multiple times helps people remember your message. This bias for the familiar also creates positive associations. People like familiar things, even if they really are no better than the alternative.
Be a better listener by “closing the loop” with clear, simple words. You’re listening carefully, but to be sure you are both on the same page, restate the message in your own words – using plain language to summarize your understanding.
To encourage deep thinking about an issue, use more complex or unfamiliar words. Use the opposite of fluency – disfluency – if you want people to think abstractly or profoundly on a topic. More complex wording, unusual word combinations or even a less readable font encourage our brains to get out of intuitive mode and think deeply.
To help people feel confident, have them list only a few reasons they’ll be successful. Generating a long list of positive attributes gets challenging, and that difficulty encourages the person to think more negatively. Because they have to work hard, they subconsciously conclude that they’re not so great after all.
Resist the urge to manipulate using cognitive fluency. Cognitive fluency can be used for good or for less-than-honorable purposes. Be open and transparent in what you are doing and why. For example, tell people why you’re using certain terms – either to help them think deeply or to make your message more memorable.
Research continues to reinforce the idea that we make judgments and decisions based on more than just the cold facts. The moral of the story is to think critically about the myriad of inputs you process each day. Are your likes and dislikes well-reasoned, or are they simply a reflection of what is easy for you think about?
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