Salience & Risk: If it’s easy to understand it must be easy, good, and true
Introduction & Excerpts (Via The Psychologist)
Suppose 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 less complex ones, but minor irrelevant features can easily lead us astray in our effort estimates.
Familiarity and risk
In addition to providing information about effort, the fluency with which a stimulus can be processed also provides information about the familiarity of the stimulus. Familiar stimuli are indeed easier to process, recognise and remember than unfamiliar stimuli. But not everything that is easy to process is also familiar – in some cases, it is only easy to process because it is presented in an easy-to-read print font or with good figure–ground contrast. As already seen, however, people are more sensitive to their feelings of ease or difficulty than to where those feelings come from and hence infer familiarity whenever a stimulus is easy to process. This fluency–familiarity link is at the heart of many fluency effects, including the influence of fluency on judgements of risk.
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).
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.