Memory, learning and the fluency heuristic
Today’s New York Times has a nice column by Ben Carey on cognitive fluency and how it interacts with memory and learning. The effects are sometimes paradoxical. For example, obstacles to fluency–a difficult-to-read typeface–can downshift the mind into slow, deliberate mode–which can actually promote learning. Here is a short excerpt from On Second Thought‘s chapter on the fluency heuristic, which demonstrates the perils of both rapid processing and overthinking:
To understand just how fundamental this bias is, consider this question: “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?”
It’s a trick question, and if you took just a few seconds to deliberate, you probably figured that out. But most people, if they have to respond quickly to this question, say: “Two.” That is, they don’t really hear the actual question, because they are on automatic pilot and the question has familiar elements. With a little mental work—very little really—they would see the distortion and say: “Moses didn’t take any animals on to an ark. Noah did.” But it’s easy to gloss over information, and we often don’t even take a few seconds to analyze what’s going on around us.
Cognitive psychologists call this common misperception the “Moses illusion.” It’s important to understanding how we navigate each day, because it’s all about how we process and understand what we read, what people say—literally every utterance and text we encounter. Language is chock full of distortions that can trip us up in many ways if we don’t pay attention. But what determines if we pay close attention or not?
Scientists have been using the Moses illusion to assess the potency of the fluency heuristic. The fluency heuristic is one of our most fundamental cognitive strategies, and its essence is that we are swayed by the ease and palatability of everything we encounter in our world. We not only process certain information more quickly and effortlessly, we like it more and trust it more.
Think about that trick question for another minute. What if, instead, I had asked you: “How many animals of each kind did Bill Clinton take on the ark?” You wouldn’t have been fooled for a second—not a millisecond—because your brain would instantaneously see that Bill Clinton is not an acceptable substitute for Noah. There is no cognitive “overlap.” But Moses and Noah overlap: They are both ancient Biblical figures, men with beards who appear in stories having something to do with water. So it takes a little more work to sort out the distortion.
A growing number of psychologists speculate that the accessibility of language—its fluency—determines whether or not we slow our minds down enough to spot illogical thinking. Among them are Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, who have run a number of intriguing experiments to test this idea. In one, they simply asked a group of volunteers the trick question about Moses. For the purposes of the experiment the question was written on paper, and the psychologists used a simple but ingenious manipulation to make the text either cognitively accessible or challenging. Some got instructions printed in crisp black typeface, a plain font designed for easy reading, not unlike the one you are reading right now. Others got the question printed in light grey cursive script; it’s unfamiliar and much harder to read.
The results are easily summarized: Those who read the question in the difficult-to-read typeface were much less likely to be tricked by the Moses illusion, and those who read the clear printing were much more likely to respond quickly (and erroneously): “two.” This may see counterintuitive at first, but this is what the psychologists think is happening: The unfamiliar gray typeface was hard to process—it lacked fluency– so the brain was forced to slow down, to switch over to its more plodding deliberate style. Once the brain slowed down to decipher the font, it also took time to notice the flaw in logic. To put this in terms of our dual-processor brain, the slow analytic brain trumped the rapid-fire brain, resulting in a sounder judgment.
But the fluency heuristic does not always work to our advantage, and here’s where it gets interesting. Song and Schwarz ran the experiment again, exactly the same way, except they changed the question to this: “Which country is famous for cuckoo clocks, chocolate, banks, and pocket knives?” The correct (and easy) answer is “Switzerland,” of course, and nine out of ten people who read the question in the clear black typeface got it right. Their automatic brain did the job. But of those who read the question in the difficult-to-read grey script, only about half got it right. That’s a big difference, and really quite remarkable for such a familiar stereotype. But what happened is this: When the difficulty of the presentation made the slower, more deliberate brain click in, it over-thought the question, making it more difficult than it had to be.
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