Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Will changing the font of our readings to Comic Sans improve our grades?
Yes. Well, Kinda..
tl;dr: Things that are harder to read make us think they are harder to understand, so we put more effort into thinking about them. Since we think about them more, understanding and memory retention can go up.
Fluency is the ease or difficulty perceived of a task. Subconsciously, we use fluency as information to help us make judgments because it overlaps with so many domains in our judgment. Objects farther away are harder to see and hear, so we perceive them as harder to process.
Fluency = Familiarity => I value them more => They are closer to me
In his talk ‘Challenging Challenges to Challenging Challenges,’ Danny Oppenheimer discusses how fluency impacts what information we represent in our minds, and what we do with those representations after. More specifically, Oppenheimer has researched the effect of linguistic representations on fluency. For example, disfluent objects could consist of hard-to-read fonts or difficult-to-pronounce words like Xyfrniorgs.
Oppenheimer conducted an experiment to test whether the pronounceability of ticker codes in stocks (AAPL, WMT, GOOG, etc.) had an effect on how well the stocks do. In a fairly large data set of stock valuations and their respective ticker names (from 1990 – 2004), it was evident that more fluent, pronounceable stocks did better. Consider the ticker KAG vs KJG. Oppenheimer categorizes KAG as fluent, and KJG as disfluent. Try pronouncing KAG, and now KJG. It’s awkward to pronounce the latter: kjig? kayjig? The idea is that if something is disfluent (the ticker is difficult to read), we feel that we don’t really understand it. In the stock market experiment, it’s possible that the ease of tickers’ pronunciations correlates with positive performance because pronounceable companies feel more understandable, and therefore we hold them closer to us.
Things that are psychologically distant make people think more abstractly. Imagine you are told you have a dentist appointment next month, how do you react? You might think that going to the dentist is a great opportunity to check on your dental hygiene, and you might picture a smiling dentist with shiny white teeth. Now imagine you were told you have a dentist appointment in 5 minutes, after you finished reading this article. The idea of a person behind a white mask, drilling into your teeth, might pop into your mind and freak you out. That sense of imminence makes us represent things more concretely, while things that are psychologically distant are represented in more abstract ways (the idea of happiness having white teeth).
What I thought was most interesting in his talk was how he implemented disfluency in education. Since disfluency makes people think harder and more abstractly, can that difficulty in understanding actually be desirable? Oppenheimer performed an experiment in a high school in Chesterland, Ohio where he had teachers teach randomly selected sections of classes with handouts and powerpoints in a disfluent font (Comic Sans MS), and other sections with fluent fonts (Arial). The fluency of fonts was determined from a survey asking students which fonts were harder to read. Students in both classes (disfluent and fluent) then took tests that tested their understanding on what they learned (Chemistry, AP Physics, AP English, etc.). The data showed a clear, positive correlation between classes taught with disfluent fonts and higher test scores. Why?
The mechanism behind disfluency: By making things harder to read, people think harder and more abstractly because they are not as confident in their ability to comprehend those things. In turn, thinking more about something aides in their memory.
A wall of text (especially in italic Comic Sans) can be difficult to read. Since it’s harder to read, we subconsciously perceive it to be more difficult to understand, when in reality it might not be difficult as all. So you allocate more effort into understanding what’s written and think about it more abstractly.
Oppenheimer’s talk was very interesting, and if you are interested, you should check out his research papers. It’s amazing to imagine the myriad of ways you could apply fluency to your life too: reading comprehension, taking notes in class, achieving/setting life goals.
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