Typography, Pronunciation and Cognitive Fluency

How easy something is to read and understand significantly affects how we perceive it in terms of its risk, beauty, difficulty, credibility and truthfulness. Factors that influence this cognitive fluency include typography (typeface choice, contrast, etc.), ease of pronunciation, familiarity and how much the words rhyme.

The cover story of this month’s The Psychologist is an extensive study of this phenomenon, looking at how cognitive fluency affects our judgements and perceptions.

This excerpt illustrates the effect, whereby a set of physical exercises designed to be incorporated in your daily routine were described (emphasis mine):

When they were presented in an easy-to-read print font (Arial), readers assumed that the exercise would take 8.2 minutes to complete; but when they were presented in a difficult-to-read print font, readers assumed it would take nearly twice as long, a full 15.1 minutes. They also thought that the exercise would flow quite naturally when the font was easy to read, but feared that it would drag on when it was difficult to read. Given these impressions, they were more willing to incorporate the exercise into their daily routine when it was presented in an easy-to-read font. Quite clearly, people misread the difficulty of reading the exercise instructions as indicative of the difficulty involved in doing the exercise. If we want people to adopt a new behaviour, it is therefore important that instructions are not only semantically clear and easy to follow, but also visually easy to read – or else the behaviour may seem unduly demanding.

Other findings from the various studies mentioned in the article:

  • When a recipe is presented in an elegant but difficult-to-read font, it is assumed that it requires more time and more skill than when presented in an easy-to-read font. (The authors conclude that restaurants should describe dishes in difficult-to-read fonts. They do.)
  • Print fonts influence whether people make decisions or defer them to a later time.
  • Food additives with complex, difficult-to-pronounce names are perceived as more risky.
  • Amusement park rides were classed as more dangerous if they had complex, difficult-to-pronounce names.
  • A statistically significant number of stocks with easy-to-pronounce tickers symbols had higher yields than those with difficult-to-pronounce ticker symbols.