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 â€“ 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.
Professor of Security Engineering at the Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Ross Anderson, has compiled a comprehensive resource page on the psychology of risk and security. The resources themselves are divided into seven section, to wit:
- Introductory Papers
- Security and Usability
- Social Attitudes to Risk
- Behavioural Economics of Security
- Miscellaneous Papers
- Other (Conferences, Websites/Blogs, Books)
From the introduction:
A fascinating dialogue is developing between psychologists and security engineers. At the macro scale, societal overreactions to terrorism are founded on the misperception of risk and uncertainty, which has deep psychological roots. At the micro scale, more and more crimes involve deception. [â€¦] Security is both a feeling and a reality, and they’re different. The gap gets ever wider, and ever more important.
At a deeper level, the psychology of security touches on fundamental scientific and philosophical problems. The ‘Machiavellian Brain’ hypothesis states that we evolved high intelligence not to make better tools, but to use other monkeys better as tools: primates who were better at deception, or at detecting deception in others, left more descendants. Conflict is also deeply tied up with social psychology and anthropology, while evolutionary explanations for the human religious impulse involve both trust and conflict.
In Dan Gardner’s excellentÂ Risk, he lists psychologist Paul Slovic’s list of 18 factors that influence how we judge the severity of risk:
- Catastrophic Potential If fatalities would occur in large numbers in a single event – instead of in small numbers dispersed over time – our perception of risk rises.
- Familiarity Unfamiliar or novel risks make us worry more.
- Understanding If we believe that how an activity or technology works is not well understood, our sense of risk goes up.
- Personal Control If we feel the potential for harm is beyond our control – like a passenger in an airplane – we worry more than if we feel in control – the driver of a car.
- Voluntariness If we don’t choose to engage the risk, it feels more threatening.
- Children It’s much worse if kids are involved.
- Future Generations If the risk threatens future generations, we worry more.
- Victim Identity Identifiable victims rather than statistical abstractions make the sense of risk rise.
- Dread If the effects generate fear, the sense of risk rises.
- Trust If the institutions involved are not trusted, risk rises.
- Media Attention More media means more worry.
- Accident History Bad events in the past boost the sense of risk.
- Equity If the benefits go to some and the dangers to others, we raise the risk ranking.
- Benefits If the benefits of the activity or technology are not clear, it is judged to be riskier.
- Reversibility If the effects of something going wrong cannot be reversed, risk rises.
- Personal Risk If it endangers me, it’s riskier.
- Origin Man-made risks are riskier than those of natural origin.
- Timing More immediate threats loom larger while those in the future tend to be discounted.
For more on risk perception, you can do worse than peruse the Wikipedia entry.
To think rationally about risk is to think probabilistically / statistically about the dangers we face.
Noting that “the most dangerous person you’re ever likely to encounter â€“ by several orders of magnitude â€“ is the one you see in the mirror every morning”, John Goekler offers some perspective on what risks we really should be more concerned about than terrorism.
A significant majority of Americans, polls repeatedly tell us, list terrorism as one of their greatest fears. Like most of our media-inspired interests and worries, however, this one has little basis in reality. [â€¦]
As the data clearly shows, the things that genuinely threaten us are the ones we are most likely to ignore or simply accept. (We’re statistically far more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by an action of Al Qaeda, for example.) The ones that we’re scared witless of â€“ and spend trillions of increasingly scarce dollars to avert in our boundless paranoia â€“ are less likely to harm us than a bag of peanuts. (Deaths in America due to peanut allergies average 50 â€“ 100 per year. Deaths of Americans due to terrorist activities [â€¦] have averaged less than 15 per year since 2002.)
From the ‘Science proves mum right’ and â€˜Obvious, but still needs to be statedâ€™ file comes the news that children who are exposed to bacteria, viruses, worms, and dirt have healthier immune systems.
Public health measures like cleaning up contaminated water and food have saved the lives of countless children, but they “also eliminated exposure to many organisms that are probably good for us.”
“Children raised in an ultraclean environment, [â€¦] are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”
Of course there are caveats, or at least common sense rules (although even the researchers in this field are debating exactly how far to take this):
“I certainly recommend washing your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, after changing a diaper, before and after handling food,” and whenever they’re visibly soiled, [one researcher] wrote.
Dr. Weinstock goes even further. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat.”