Adam Alter lists some evidence from people who study the effects of "disfluency" (unfamiliarity, or lack of clarity), which somewhat surprisingly leads to greater depth of thought (while you're expending the energy to understand something, you can't help but think about it), and also a willingness to depart further from immediate concrete reality (as in Robin Hanson's Near-Far). Think of the effort given to studying vague, poetic, or just incomprehensible religious materials (sometimes in their original scripts) and the investment this can generate.

Below are some of the linked claims of evidence:

When you give the prompt ... "Think about what it would be like to be fit and to have done a lot of exercise," if you give that prompt in a font that's very difficult to read, in a disfluent font, people tend to think longer about the task, they think more deeply about it, they depart more from reality, and then later on they actually say that they're going to be more willing to do this sort of exercise, and so they become more committed.

When you give them the bill that's been slightly altered [George Washington's portrait faces left], they think they can't purchase quite as much with it. If you say to them, "How many M&Ms can you purchase with this dollar bill," they'll give you a higher number when it's the real bill, and they'll also do that when it's a dollar bill versus a more obscure form of currency, like a dollar coin, or if you give them two $1bills, they think they can buy more with those two $1 bills than they can with a single $2 bill, the Jefferson $2 bill, which is much rarer. It's legal tender, but it's just more rare, and you find that people think they can purchase more with the two $1 bills than with the single $2 bill. That effect is also stronger to the extent that they are unfamiliar with the Jefferson bill. It goes away completely when they're very familiar with the Jefferson bill, but when they haven't seen it as many times, you get this very strong effect that they think that the Jefferson bill is less valuable, can purchase less than two $1 bills.
[about some anonymous confessions website] In the middle of 2008 he decided to change the format, and now the background, instead of being this gray shade that was very similar to the black text, he changed the background to white, and all of a sudden it was much easier to read the information on the site. ... The gravity of the confessions went up. They were much more revealing. Often they revealed crimes and major things that people might not otherwise reveal. A lot of the confessions that people were revealing when the site was disfluent were peccadilloes. They were minor issues. They were revealing really minor trivial things. We have some evidence that disfluency might mitigate some of those issues with over-sharing on the internet
if you ask people about how risky a ride is at an amusement park, if the ride has a very simple name, and it's easy to pronounce, people assume that it's not a very dangerous ride. It's not very risky. If you give them a ride that's much more disfluent, that's got a very complex name, they then think the ride is much more dangerous. They did the same thing with additives for food. They assume that the more complicated and convoluted the additive, and the harder it is to pronounce the additive's name, the more dangerous the additive will probably be.
"How likely do you think it is that this person knows that what you're clapping is Happy Birthday?" People, as they're clapping Happy Birthday, in their heads, they're humming it to themselves, and so they imagine the other person has a lot of that information, that it's totally obvious, and it turns out not to be
When you feel disfluency, it makes you feel a distance from the target. We've shown this effect with lawyers, that lawyers are just judged more harshly. We've shown the effect with politicians as well. If you say to someone, "Here are two politicians. How would you judge these two," you often find that you get more votes for having the simpler name.
When you ask people how well they understand what distinguishes two candidates, this particularly happens when you're dealing at the primary level before the main election, you'll find that people say, "I understand the difference between the candidates pretty well." They have this sense that they know the candidates, they know a little bit about them, and when you ask, "Okay. Can you explain the differences between the candidates to me," that leads them to a point where they can't do that.
If it feels more difficult to remember you'll assume that it happened longer ago, that it's further from where you are today. The same thing is true if you're looking at something, and you're trying to judge its physical distance. If it's fuzzy or difficult to perceive, you might assume that it's farther away.
If you present the questions [“When you add the cost of a bat and a ball together the sum of those two is worth $1.10, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?” etc.] in a font that's a little bit more difficult to read, we found that you can increase their accuracy pretty dramatically. They make fewer of those intuitive responses. They take the time to reconsider their initial responses. They assume that the task is more difficult. They have a bit less confidence in their initial response, and so they tend to do a little bit better at the task.
If you look at the codes that are pronounceable, like BRI would be Bri, it's not an English word, but it's pronounceable, whereas BRK would be unpronounceable according to the rules of English grammar. The stocks that are pronounceable tend to do better when they first enter the market.
 If you present the same information in a format that's difficult to read, either because the font that you've chosen is complex, or because you put the font against a background that isn't very highly contrasting, or contrasted against that font, you find that people think that that moral transgression they're reading is worse. By struggling to read the transgression, they basically assume that the transgression is worse.
If you look at lawyers who join law firms they tend to ascend up the legal hierarchy much more quickly when their names are easy to pronounce or process. That's independent of a whole lot of other factors, like how foreign the name is.

(you may wish to skip over a long section speculating about the effects of 'kids these days don't remember phone numbers', since there's no new information in it).


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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:16 AM

I've given this an upvote because it's got a lot of information I didn't have, but it should probably be in Discussion. It doesn't have much advice, with the possible exception of experimenting with fluency levels if you have a chance.

Agree that it belongs in discussion. Disagree that it deserves an upvote.

One more for your list-- hazards of having a hard-to-pronounce name in prison. This is one person's account, not a study.

I think maybe you meant to link this, which is the page that has the actual disfluency discussion.

Wow, you're right. Thanks.

Replication needed.

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