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psychologist vol 23 no 2

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Fluency, processing style and judgement Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz on some fascinating findings

Incorporating Psychologist Appointments ÂŁ5 or free to members of The British Psychological Society

forum 90 news 98 careers 148 looking back 166

mirrors and the mind 112 the need for a physical education 116 scams, squirrels and drug money 120 when correlations go bad 122

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The British Psychological Society Contact The British Psychological Society St Andrews House 48 Princess Road East Leicester LE1 7DR tel 0116 254 9568 fax 0116 227 1314

Welcome to The Psychologist, the monthly publication of The British Psychological Society. It provides a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among all members of the Society, and aims to fulfil the main object of the Royal Charter, ‘to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied’. It is supported by, where you can view this month’s issue, search the archive, listen, debate, contribute, subscribe, advertise, and more.

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Associate Editors Articles Vaughan Bell, Kate Cavanagh, Marc Jones, Rebecca Knibb, Charlie Lewis, Amina Memon, Wendy Morgan, Tom Stafford, Miles Thomas, Monica Whitty, Barry Winter Conferences Sandie Cleland, Sarah Haywood International Nigel Foreman, Asifa Majid Interviews Nigel Hunt, Lance Workman History of Psychology Julie Perks

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psychologist vol 23 no 2

forum 90 flashmobs; Down’s syndrome; cannabis gateway effects; HPC registration; role of educational psychologists; and more news 98 crowd psychology; mental health policy; ‘Rain Man’; water use event report; Royal Society at 350; and more digest 102 in the first of a new series of nuggets from the Society’s Research Digest, we cover temptation, doodling, career transitions and destination memory media Harriet Gross on getting the psychological message across 116


Mirrors and the mind Marco Bertamini has some surprising reflections


The need for a physical education Matthew Y.W. Kwan and Guy Faulkner on the decline in physical activity in the transition to young adulthood, and the methodological challenges


Interview: Scams, squirrels and drug money Stephen Lea talks to Lance Workman about his work with humans and other animals


february 2010

THE ISSUE When I left academia for this job, I was plunged into a world of fonts, leading, kerning and the like. Most people know that such design elements can affect how fluently we process new material. But did you know that this can, in turn, inform judgements we make on truth, risk and beauty? In this issue, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz guide us effortlessly through some weird and wonderful research. Talking of which, this month sees the first spread of material from the Society’s Research Digest. Last year, reached the top 10 science blogs in the world, yet many of our readers are still not signed up to the regular, free e-mail. We hope that regularly showcasing some of the best material from the Digest will draw more of you to the blog, and free up a bit of our journalist’s time to produce more excellent features. Dr Jon Sutton (Managing Editor)

methods 122 when correlations go bad: Thomas Baguley cautions against the careless and routine application of standardisation in psychology book reviews doctoring the mind; human potential; applied sport psychology; research methods in applied settings; memory rehabilitation


society President’s column; lifetime achievement award; and more


careers an interview with Richard Bentall; work experience; featured job; and more


looking back the historical story is key to being a good scientist, argues Roger Smith


one on one …with Jennie Lindon


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If it’s easy to read, it’s easy to do, pretty, good, and true Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz on fluency effects and judgement, choice and processing style 108



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Step away from the cookie jar! Out on a shopping trip after lunch, you buy a couple of boxes of chocolates to put in storage for enjoyment over the festive break. You’re not particularly hungry, and you see no obvious problems with the plan. Later that night, however, the munchies kick in and before you know it you’re raiding the cupboard, tearing open the box and gorging yourself. According to a new paper by Loran Nordgren and colleagues, such lapses occur all too frequently because of our inability, when satiated, to fully recognise the power of our visceral needs when hungry, tired or lustful. They call this the ‘cold-to-hot empathy gap’. They say that when we’re satiated, as we are most of the time, we overestimate our ability to resist temptation – a phenomenon they've dubbed the ‘restraint bias’. The researchers first demonstrated this in relation to mental fatigue. One group of students performed an easy two-minute memory task whilst a second group completed an arduous 20-minute version. The group who’d completed the easy version subsequently rated their ability to overcome mental fatigue more highly than the group who’d performed the arduous task. What’s more, the easy group said they planned to leave more of their coursework until the last week of term, consistent with their inflated belief in their ability to work through fatigue. A second study involved students who were either arriving or leaving the college cafeteria. The students ranked seven snack bars from least favourite to favourite and then had to choose one bar to take away. If they brought it back in a week’s time, they'd get to keep the bar and win $4. You guessed it – compared with the The December issue of Psychological Science reports that hungry students arriving at the we overestimate our ability to resist temptation cafeteria, the departing students (who’d eaten) rated their self-control more highly, were more likely to choose to take away their first or second favourite snack bar, and were more likely to eat that bar during the following week. It doesn’t end there. In a third study, the researchers contrived to influence beliefs about selfcontrol by giving student smokers a bogus implicit test of impulse control. Later, the students were challenged to watch the film Coffee and Cigarettes whilst abstaining from smoking. They were promised a greater cash reward the more difficult they made the challenge for themselves. In this case, students given bogus test feedback indicating they had high self-control were more likely to opt for greater temptation – holding the cigarette in their hand rather than having it on the desk – and they were more likely to give in to that temptation. Finally, Nordgren’s team tested the idea that ‘restraint bias’ could explain why drug addicts are so prone to relapse. They recruited 55 participants through a smoking-cessation programme, all of whom had been smoke-free for at least three weeks. Those who said they had more impulse control also tended to say they wouldn’t be trying so hard to avoid temptation, such as the company of other smokers. Four months later, those with the inflated sense of impulse control were more likely to have relapsed. ‘The restraint bias suggests that people are willing to experiment with addictive drugs simply because they believe they can overcome the addiction,’ the researchers said. ‘An urgent task for future research is to test whether enduring shifts in impulse-control beliefs can be created.’


What does a doodle do? In the January issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology You know you’re bored when you start shading in the squares of your notebook. Apparently it’s a habit that could be helping you to concentrate. In a neat little experiment, Jackie Andrade asked 40 participants to listen to a monotone two-and-a-halfminute phone message about arrangements for a party. They were told the message would be dull, that there was no need to memorise it, but that they should write down the names of the people who would be able to attend the party. Crucially, half the participants were also told to ‘doodle’ as they listened, by shading in the squares and circles of their note-paper. Afterwards, the doodlers had noted fractionally more of the correct names (7.8 on average vs. 7.1 – a statistically significant difference). What’s more, moments later, the doodlers also excelled in a surprise memory test of the guests’ names and the places mentioned in the message, recalling 29 per cent more details than the non-doodlers. Andrade said more research is obviously needed to find out how doodling helps us maintain our attention. However, her theory is that by using up slightly more mental resources, doodling helps prevent the mind from wandering off the boring primary task into daydream land. This study is part of an emerging recognition in psychology that secondary tasks aren’t always a distraction from primary tasks, but can sometimes actually be beneficial.

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‘I wanted a new challenge’

Why we’re poor at remembering to whom we’ve told what

In the December issue of Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology It’s not many generations ago that workers expected to have a job for life, most probably one that followed in the footsteps of their father. In many of today’s richer societies, it’s all different. Longer education and greater individual choice mixed with mergers, take-overs and bankruptcies mean that people’s careers are typically punctuated by a series of distinct transitions or chapters. But how do people perceive these transitions and does this vary between cultures? To find out, Katharina Chudzikowski and her colleagues interviewed a mix of over a hundred nurses and blue- and white-collar workers from five countries – Austria, Serbia, Spain, US and China. Their stand-out finding? Workers in the US didn't ever attribute a career transition to an external cause, such as conflict with a boss. Not once. Instead they tended to mention internal factors, such as their desire for a fresh challenge. By contrast, workers in China almost exclusively stressed the role played by external factors. Meanwhile, workers in the European nations were more of a mix, attributing their career transitions to both internal and external factors. The researchers said a lot of the transitions reported by the participants, especially in the US and Europe, were positive. Generally speaking, people are known to be biased towards attributing positive events to themselves, and so it’s perhaps little wonder that many

In the December issue of Psychological Science

workers attributed all these positive career transitions to internal causes. ‘In addition,’ the researchers said, ‘in many cultures “being in charge” of one’s life is positively valued. Conversely, reconstructing crucial career transitions as purely triggered by external circumstances does not convey a great amount of competence.’ Where workers showed a greater tendency to attribute their career transitions to external causes, this seemed to be related to the influence of a collectivist culture and an economy in flux. ‘Countries with more dynamic economic change show a stronger emphasis on organisational and macro factors,’ the researchers said. Other interesting crosscultural differences emerged. Some German-speaking interviewees cited Wirtschaft as a factor – a word that can mean economy, industry, commerce or business world, but which also has mythical-religious undertones. There’s no real English equivalent.

Most of us seem to be far better at remembering who’s told us what compared with to whom we’ve told what. Psychologists characterise this as a distinction between ‘source memory’ and ‘destination memory’, and according to Nigel Gopie and Colin MacLeod, the latter is surprisingly under-researched. They argue that the self-focus associated with disclosing information, rather than receiving it, disrupts the processes that would otherwise associate what was said and to whom. So if you’re fed up with hearing ‘you told me that already!’, try focusing less on yourself and more on your listener the next time you share an anecdote. Gopie and MacLeod got 60 undergrads to look at pictures of famous faces – half of them received a single fact from each face, in written form; the other half told a fact to each face. Afterwards the students were tested on their memory for which facts were associated with which faces, and those

who’d received facts performed significantly better than those who’d told facts. Memory for the facts themselves, by contrast, was no different between the two groups. The researchers then tested the idea that destination memory is weak thanks to the self-focus associated with disclosing rather than receiving information. Students who told facts to famous faces using personal pronouns (‘I’ and ‘my’) were even worse than usual at remembering to whom they’d told what. By contrast, destination memory was improved when students were trained to focus more on the famous face (by instructing the participants to say each famous person’s name before disclosing a fact to them) before sharing a fact with it. ‘It is remarkable that source memory has received intense research attention, whereas destination memory has been almost entirely overlooked,’ the researchers said.

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett. Visit the blog for full coverage including references and links, additional current reports, an archive, comment and more.

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If it’s easy to read, it’s easy to do, pretty, good, and true Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz describe some fascinating findings on how fluency affects judgement, choice and processing style


Thinking can feel easy or difficult. But what effect does the ease or difficulty of reading a text have on information processing? Can something as seemingly irrelevant as the print font in which information is presented influence how information is evaluated, or even whether it is accepted as true or false? What are the practical implications for everyday life?


What is the likely role of metacognitive feelings of ease and difficulty in your own field of psychology? What are the implications for teaching, counselling, advertising, health education, and political communication?



What do these influences imply for the rationality of human judgement?


Schwarz, N. (2004). Metacognitive experiences in judgments and decision making. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14, 332–348. Schwarz, N., Song, H., & Xu, J. (2009). When thinking is difficult: Metacognitive experiences as information. In M. Wänke (Ed.) The social psychology of consumer behavior. New York: Psychology Press.,8599, 1881325,00.html id=a-recipe-for-motivation

Alter, A.L. & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2006). Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluency. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 103, 9369–9372. McGlone, M.S. & Tofighbakhsh, J. (2000). Birds of a feather flock conjointly. Psychological Science, 11, 424–428. Novemsky, N., Dhar, R., Schwarz, N. & Simonson, I. (2007). Preference fluency in choice. Journal of

uppose you ponder whether a new exercise routine is suitable for you or whether a statement like ‘Orsono is a city in Chile’ is true or false. What would your decision be based on? Most psychological theories suggest that you would consider the nature of the exercise or draw on your knowledge about geography to arrive at an informed decision. Surely, you wouldn’t base your judgement on the print font in which the material is presented – or would you? Surprisingly, recent experimental research shows that the print font can exert a profound influence on such decisions. This is the case because print fonts and related variables influence how fluently new information can be processed. The resulting feeling of ease or difficulty, in turn, informs a wide variety of judgements, from judgements of effort to judgements of familiarity, truth, risk and beauty (for a review see Schwarz et al., 2009). We illustrate some of these effects, discuss their applied implications, and note parallels between people’s reliance on the metacognitive feelings of ease and difficulty and their reliance on moods and emotions as sources of information (Schwarz & Clore, 2007).

Effort and choice When we consider adopting new behaviours, we often try to assess how much effort they will require. Will this new exercise routine be a pain? Will this recipe be easy to prepare? Not surprisingly, complex exercise routines and recipes will seem more effortful than

Marketing Research, 44, 347–356. Reber, R., Brun, M. & Mittendorfer, K. (2009). The use of heuristics in intuitive mathematical judgment. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 15(6), 1174–1178. Reber, R. & Schwarz, N. (1999). Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 338–342. Reber, R., Schwarz, N. & Winkielman, P.

less complex ones, but minor irrelevant features can easily lead us astray in our effort estimates. For example, consider the identical exercise instructions shown (in part) in Figure 1. When they were presented in an easy-to-read print font (Arial), readers assumed that the exercise would take 8.2 minutes to complete; but when they were presented in a difficult-to-read print font, readers assumed it would take nearly twice as long, a full 15.1 minutes (Song & Schwarz, 2008b). They also thought that the exercise would flow quite naturally when the font was easy to read, but feared that it would drag on when it was difficult to read. Given these impressions, they were more willing to incorporate the exercise into their daily routine when it was presented in an easy-to-read font. Quite clearly, people misread the difficulty of reading the exercise instructions as indicative of the difficulty involved in doing the exercise. If we want people to adopt a new behaviour, it is therefore important that instructions are not only semantically clear and easy to follow, but also visually easy to read – or else the behaviour may seem unduly demanding. Similar results were obtained when people read a recipe for a Japanese lunch roll (Song & Schwarz, 2008b). When the identical recipe was presented in the elegant but difficult-to-read Mistral font, they assumed that it would require more time and more skill than when it was presented in the easy-to-read Arial font. Hence, it may be advantageous for restaurants to describe their dishes in a difficult-to-read font, which conveys that their preparation requires considerable skill and effort – but the same font may discourage the hobby cook from trying the recipe at home. Other research showed that the print font can influence whether people make any decision at all or defer the decision to a later time. Not surprisingly, people are more likely to postpone a decision the harder it is to make (for a review see Novemsky et al., 2007). In most cases, the difficulty arises from characteristics of the

(2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver's processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 364–382. Schwarz, N. (2006). On judgments of truth and beauty. Daedalus, 135, 136–138. Schwarz, N. & Clore, G.L. (1983). Mood, misattribution, and judgments of well-being. Journal of Personality and

Social Psychology, 45, 513–523. Schwarz, N. & Clore, G.L. (2007). Feelings and phenomenal experiences. In A. Kruglanski & E.T. Higgins (Eds.) Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (2nd edn) (pp.385–407). New York: Guilford. Schwarz, N., Sanna, L., Skurnik, I. & Yoon, C. (2007). Metacognitive experiences and the intricacies of setting people straight. Advances in

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the experimenter stated unless their attention is drawn to the the obvious: ‘This may be incidental nature of their current feelings difficult to read because of (e.g. Schwarz & Clore, 1983). the print font.’ In this case, deferral dropped from 41 Familiarity and risk per cent to 16 per cent, In addition to providing information wiping out the difference about effort, the fluency with which a between the two fonts. stimulus can be processed also provides In combination, these information about the familiarity of the findings highlight that stimulus. Familiar stimuli are indeed people are sensitive to their easier to process, recognise and remember feelings of ease or difficulty, Tuck your chin into your chest, and then lift your than unfamiliar stimuli. But not but insensitive to where chin upward as far as possible. 6–10 everything that is easy to process is also these feelings come from. repetitions familiar – in some cases, it is only easy to As a result, they process because it is presented in an easymisattribute the Lower your left ear toward your left shoulder and to-read print font or with good experienced ease or then your right ear toward your right shoulder. figure–ground contrast. As already seen, difficulty to whatever is in 6–10 repetitions however, people are more sensitive to the focus of their attention. their feelings of ease or difficulty than Hence, they decide to defer to where those feelings come from and choice, or to avoid an Figure 1. People mistakenly interpret the difficulty of hence infer familiarity whenever a exercise routine, simply reading exercise instructions as indicative of the difficulty stimulus is easy to process. This because the print font makes involved in doing the exercise fluency–familiarity link is at the heart the information difficult to of many fluency effects, including the process. Once their attention influence of fluency on judgements of is drawn to the print font, choice situation, like difficult trade-offs risk. facilitating a correct attribution, these between price and quality or the sheer It is not surprising that familiar options effects are no longer observed. This finding number of similar choice alternatives. feel safer than unfamiliar ones. In grocery parallels the observation that people draw However, the same inclination to defer aisles, we often prefer the same familiar on their moods as a source of information choice can be observed when vegetables over less the experienced difficulty familiar exotic ones arises merely from the print because we do not want to font in which the choice run the risk of picking one alternatives are described. with a strange taste or Novemsky and colleagues unknown allergens. (2007) presented the same Similarly, people perceive information about two technologies, investments cordless phones in easy- or and leisure activities as less difficult-to-read fonts. They risky the more familiar observed that 17 per cent of they are with them. But their participants postponed does this observation really choice when the font was easy reflect the influence of to read, whereas 41 per cent mere familiarity or does did so when the font was extended exposure to a difficult to read. Apparently, potential threat desensitise participants misread the people to the risks difficulty arising from the print involved? To address this font as reflecting the difficulty issue, we took advantage of of making a choice. the well-established fluencyPeople perceive technologies, investments, leisure activities, even Supporting this interpretation, –familiarity link. Given that vegetables, as less risky the more familiar they are with them the effect was eliminated when fluently processed stimuli

Tuck your chin into your chest, and then lift your chin upward as far as possible. 6–10 repetitions Lower your left ear toward your left shoulder and then your right ear toward your right shoulder. 6–10 repetitions

Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 127-161. Schwarz, N., Song, H. & Xu, J. (2009). When thinking is difficult: Metacognitive experiences as information. In M. Wänke (Ed.) The social psychology of consumer behavior. New York: Psychology Press. Song, H. & Schwarz, N. (2008a). Fluency and the detection of misleading

questions. Social cognition, 26, 791–799. Song, H. & Schwarz, N. (2008b). If it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do: Processing fluency affects effort prediction and motivation. Psychological Science, 19, 986–988. Song, H. & Schwarz, N. (2009). If it’s difficult to pronounce, it must be risky: Fluency, familiarity, and risk perception. Psychological Science,

read discuss contribute at

20(2), 135–138. Weaver, K., Garcia, S.M., Schwarz, N. & Miller, D.T. (2007). Inferring the popularity of an opinion from its familiarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 821–833. Winkielman, P. & Cacioppo, J.T. (2001). Mind at ease puts a smile on the face: Psychophysiological evidence that processing facilitation leads to positive affect. Journal of

Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 989–1000. Winkielman, P., Halberstadt, J., Fazendeiro, T. & Catty, S. (2006). Prototypes are attractive because they are easy on mind. Psychological Science, 17(9), 799–806. Zajonc, R.B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Monograph Supplement, 9, 1–27.


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seem more familiar, they should also be perceived as less threatening and less risky. Empirically this is the case (Song & Schwarz, 2009). In one study, participants perceived ostensible food additives with hard-to-pronounce names (e.g. Hnegripitrom) as more harmful than food additives with easy-to-pronounce names (e.g. Magnalroxate). In addition, the food additives with difficult names were perceived as more novel than the ones with easy names, and perceived novelty mediated the influence of ease of pronunciation on perceived risk. Given that none of our participants could know anything about these ostensible food additives (after all, we made up the names), this finding provided first evidence that perceived familiarity, by itself, influences perceptions of risk. Moreover, this influence is not limited to the perception of negative risks, as in the case of food additives, but can also be observed in the perception of risks that people consider desirable. For instance, people may want to take risky amusement park rides to enjoy the feeling of excitement and adventure. Would their choice be influenced by the ease or difficulty with which the names of the amusement park rides can be pronounced? The answer is a clear ‘yes’ (Song & Schwarz, 2009). Participants perceived rides with difficult-to-pronounce names (e.g. Tsiischili) as more exciting and adventurous than rides with easy-topronounce names (e.g. Chunta). Other participants, however, were asked how likely the rides would make them feel sick – and once again, the rides with difficultto-pronounce names won. Throughout, the ease with which the names of stimuli could be pronounced influenced their perceived familiarity. This perceived familiarity, in turn, influenced how risky the stimuli seemed, no matter if the risk was desirable or undesirable. Similar observations have been made in a real-world domain with high stakes: people’s investments in the stock market. Analysing the performance of initial public offerings on the New York Stock Exchange, Alter and Oppenheimer (2006) found that companies with easy-topronounce ticker symbols (e.g. KAR) performed better than companies with difficult-to-pronounce ticker symbols (RDO). Investing $1000 in a basket of stocks with fluent ticker symbols would have yielded an excess profit of $85.35 over a basket with disfluent ticker symbols on the first day of trading. This advantage dropped to a still impressive $20.25 by the end of the first year of trading, as more diagnostic information about the companies became available.


Participants perceived rides with difficult-to-pronounce names as more exciting and adventurous than rides with easy-to-pronounce names

Presumably, investment opportunities with easy-to-pronounce ticker symbols seemed less risky, giving them an advantage in initial public offerings. The observed link between fluency, familiarity and risk perception has many important practical implications. In certain product domains, like insurance and food, safety is highly valued. Hence, marketers may want to give these products easy-to-pronounce names and may want to present the product information in ways that facilitate easy processing. In other domains, however, risk is valued. For instance, sports like bungee jumping, parachuting or hang gliding derive their excitement from the risks involved. In such cases, difficult-topronounce names and hard-to-process descriptions may highlight the promise of adventure and excitement. Similarly, policy makers may want to pay attention to fluency variables to alert consumers to potential hazards and to prevent the erroneous impression that a hazardous product is safe simply because its name is easy to pronounce.

Social consensus and truth The observed fluency–familiarity link also has important implications for judgements of truth. As social psychologists have long been aware, people often rely on social consensus

information to determine whether something is true or not: If many people believe it, there’s probably something to it. Unfortunately, however, we are poor at tracking how often we heard something and rely instead on whether it sounds familiar – if it does, we probably heard it before. Hence, variables that increase the perceived familiarity of a statement also increase its perceived social consensus and the impression that the statement is likely to be true (for a review see Schwarz et al., 2007). For example, Weaver et al. (2007) presented participants with multiple repetitions of the same opinion statement. For some participants, each repetition came from a different communicator, whereas for others, all repetitions came from the same communicator. When later asked to estimate how widely the conveyed opinion is shared, participants estimated higher social consensus the more often they had read the identical statement – even when each repetition came from the same single source. Apparently, participants drew on the familiarity of the opinion to estimate its popularity – and were once again insensitive to where this feeling of familiarity came from. As a result, a single repetitive voice sounded like a chorus. And once people infer that an opinion is widely shared, it is also likely to be accepted as true – after all, if many people believe it,

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there’s probably something to it. Hence, the mere repetition of a statement facilitates its acceptance as true, as naturalistic studies of war-time rumours and many laboratory experiments demonstrated (for a review see Schwarz et al., 2009). As already seen, however, repetition is not the only variable that makes things seem familiar – any other variable that increases processing fluency can do the trick. For example, Reber and Schwarz (1999) presented participants with statements like ‘Orsono is a city in Chile’ and asked them to judge whether the statement is true or false. To manipulate the statements’ perceived familiarity, they presented the statements in colours that were easy or difficult to read against a coloured background. As expected, the same statement was more often accepted as true when the colour contrast made reading easy rather than difficult. Similarly, McGlone and Tofighbakhsh (2000) reported that substantively equivalent aphorisms were more likely to be accepted as true when they were presented in a rhyming (e.g. ‘Woes unite foes’) rather than non-rhyming form (e.g. ‘Woes unite enemies’). Throughout, variables that facilitate fluent processing also facilitate the impression that a statement is familiar and hence likely to be true. This fluency–familiarity–truth link presents a particular problem when we attempt to counter rumours or to discredit misleading information. In most cases, the correction includes a repetition of the false statement, along with reasons why it is false. Unfortunately, this repetition increases the experience of familiarity when the false statement is encountered again at a later time – long after the correct facts have been forgotten. As a result, corrections that repeat false information ironically facilitate its later acceptance as true (see Schwarz et al., 2007). It is therefore important never to repeat anything that is false. Instead, communicators should attempt to make the truth as fluent and familiar as possible, taking advantage of variables like repetition, rhyme and easy readability.

Affect and beauty One of the best known fluency effects is the mere exposure effect originally identified by Zajonc (1968): The more often we see an object, like a Chinese ideograph, the more we like it. From a fluency perspective, repeated exposure is just one of many variables that facilitate fluent processing. If so, any other variable that makes processing easy should also increase liking. Empirically this is the

case, as a growing number of studies shows. For example, we like a stimulus more when a preceding visual or semantic prime facilitates its processing – we even find a picture of a lock more beautiful when it was preceded by the word ‘key’ (see Reber et al., 2004). This positive response to fluently processed stimuli can also be captured with electromyography, a procedure that measures subtle muscle responses in the face (Winkielman & Cacioppo, 2001), indicating that fluent processing feels good. Our preference for fluently processed stimuli underlies many of the variables known to influence aesthetic experience, from symmetry and figure–ground contrast to the gestalt laws – all of these variables facilitate fluent processing (Reber et al., 2004). The same principle is also central to the observation that we prefer prototypical faces over more unusual ones – prototypical faces are easier to process and elicit a more positive affective response (Winkielman et al., 2006). Moreover, this research also sheds light on why scientists and poets alike believe that beauty and truth go hand in hand, despite all the beautiful and elegant theories that landed on the trash heap of science – intuitive judgements of beauty and truth are based on the same input, namely the experience of fluent processing (Reber et al., 2009; Schwarz, 2006).

Fluency and processing style – Do I need to think twice? Our positive affective response to fluently processed material and the role of fluency in judgements of popularity and truth converge to predict an additional effect: Fluently processed material should receive less scrutiny. On the one hand, statements that sound like we heard them before are less likely to invite scrutiny than statements that seem unfamiliar. On the other hand, positive affect generally increases heuristic processing with limited attention to detail, whereas negative affect facilitates systematic processing with higher detail orientation (see Schwarz & Clore, 2007). Hence, material that is presented in a difficultto-read print font should receive more scrutiny, making it more likely that readers detect substantive errors. As an example, consider the question ‘How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?’ Most people answer ‘two’ despite knowing that the biblical actor was Noah, not Moses. Even when warned that some of the statements may be distorted, most people fail to notice the error because both actors are similar in the context of biblical stories.

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However, a change in print fonts is sufficient to attenuate this Moses illusion. When the question was presented in an easy-to-read font, only 7 per cent of the readers noticed the error, whereas 40 per cent did so when it was presented in a difficult-to-read font, similar to the one shown in Figure 1 (Song & Schwarz, 2008a). Whether this helps or hurts task performance depends on whether the first thing that comes to mind is correct or not. This phenomenon has potentially important practical implications. For example, product manufacturers often hide deceptive information in the fine print to make it less noticeable. If consumers ever read the fine print, however, the disfluency associated with processing it may make it more likely that they notice the deception. Similarly, presenting multiple-choice questions in a difficult-to-read font may attenuate the allure of familiar but erroneous response alternatives.

Conclusion As the reviewed examples illustrate, people attend to the dynamics of their own information processing and are highly sensitive to the resulting feelings of ease or difficulty. Unfortunately, they are much less sensitive to where these feelings come from. As has been observed for moods and emotions (for a review see Schwarz & Clore, 2007), they assume that their feelings bear on whatever they are thinking about, unless their attention is drawn to an incidental source. Hence, any variable that facilitates or impairs fluent information processing can profoundly affect people’s judgements 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.

I Hyunjin Song

is at Yale University

I Norbert Schwarz

is at the University of Michigan


The Psychologist February 2010  

This is a preview of the February issue of The Psychologist, the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society. To purchase the w...

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