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Easy = True?

This seems like a manifestation of the Availability Bias. Investors take note!

One of the hottest topics in psychology today is something called “cognitive fluency.” Cognitive fluency is simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard. On the face of it, it’s a rather intuitive idea. But psychologists are only beginning to uncover the surprising extent to which fluency guides our thinking, and in situations where we have no idea it is at work.

Psychologists have determined, for example, that shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names do indeed significantly outperform those with hard-to-pronounce names. Other studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities. Similar manipulations can get subjects to be more forgiving, more adventurous, and more open about their personal shortcomings.

Because it shapes our thinking in so many ways, fluency is implicated in decisions about everything from the products we buy to the people we find attractive to the candidates we vote for – in short, in any situation where we weigh information. It’s a key part of the puzzle of how feelings like attraction and belief and suspicion work, and what researchers are learning about fluency has ramifications for anyone interested in eliciting those emotions.

Our bias for the familiar, however, can be triggered in settings where there’s little purpose to it. In the 1960s, Zajonc did a series of experiments that uncovered what he dubbed the “mere exposure” effect: He found that, with stimuli ranging from nonsense words to abstract geometric patterns to images of faces to Chinese ideographs (the test subjects, being non-Chinese speakers, didn’t know what the ideographs meant), all it took to get people to say they liked certain ones more than others was to present them multiple times.

More recent work suggests that people assign all sorts of specific characteristics to things that feel familiar. Like beauty. Psychologists have identified what they call the “beauty-in-averageness” effect – when asked to identify the most attractive example of something, people tend to choose the most prototypical option. For example, when asked to identify the most appealing of a group of human faces, people choose the one that is a composite of all the others. And it’s not just faces: Studies have found a similar tendency when people are asked to identify what makes for an attractive dog or car or watch. Some psychologists suggest that much of what we perceive as beauty is just the fact that the most prototypical faces and dogs and watches are the easiest to process, because they share the most with all the other faces and dogs and watches that we’ve seen and stored in our perceptual inventory.

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