What is Cognitive Fluency And Why Does It Matter?


a man sitting on a couch with a laptop

Cognitive fluency basically refers to the simplicity or difficulty of forming an understanding of information. In other words, it’s the mental effort expended in the completion of a mental task as well as the feelings associated with that effort. This fluency has a significant impact on our decision making. If information appears simple to absorb, we’re more likely to be open to it, whereas we’re more likely to resist absorbing information that seems difficult. This can be seen in something as simple as fonts, for example. If a font is difficult to read, we’re more likely to have an unpleasant time reading it versus a more legible font.

Cognitive fluency is important because it affects people’s judgment without them even realizing it. This fluency operates on a subconscious level and offers little insight into the actual difficulty of a task. Rather, it only affects people’s perception. The concept is backed up by well-explored psychological principles, and those who understand it may use manipulation of its concepts to affect the perceptions or decisions of others. This is often seen in the world of marketing.

The Familiarity Principle

This principle, also called the mere exposure effect, basically states that people begin to develop a preference for certain stimuli the more they are exposed to them. Familiarity has a huge influence over people’s perception and their decisions. People are more likely to gravitate towards products or companies they are familiar with just as they are more likely to find familiar images and people more attractive. Psychologists use the Beauty of Averageness Effect to describe the fact that participants asked to pick the most attractive faces from a group of pictures often choose those that are composites of many faces.

Of course, the familiarity principle goes beyond faces or even visual stimuli in general. People also tend to prefer familiar sounds, such as voices of loved ones, or familiar textures and smells. There’s a reason large companies paste their recognizable logos wherever they can and play catchy jingles in ads at every opportunity. The more familiar potential buyers are with the company, the more likely they’ll be open to purchases.

Familiarity Isn’t Always Right

Of course, while familiarity may produce positive feelings in people, it isn’t always a good guide. People can rely on it a bit too much as a shortcut for cognition, but just because something seems familiar doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve encountered it before, or vice versa. This feeling can mislead us when it comes to judging tasks or situations, as some may seem more difficult than they actually are.

Fluency and Reading

Returning to our previous example of fonts, these can have a huge influence over how our brains process information. While cleaner font is inherently easier to read, it can also affect our judgement of the material we’re reading. Psychologists Norbert Schwarz and Hyujin Song performed a study in which they presented participants with various instructions on a few different tasks, like recipes and exercise routines. The instructions were all the same, but they were written in different fonts. Schwarz and Song found that those who had read more legible font believed the tasks would take significantly less time than those who had to read difficult fonts.

This Schwarz and Song experiment is a great example of cognitive disfluency at work. Easy to read fonts encourage fluent processing, but difficult ones take longer. While this disfluency may seem like negative outcome, this isn’t necessarily the case. Cognitive disfluency simply means that people will have to think deeper to absorb the information, which can be beneficial for learning.

The effects of perceptual fluency are also present in spoken words. In a separate study, Schwarz and Song found that words with a difficult pronunciation were perceived to be more risky by participants than easy to pronounce words. This study has participants study a list of food additives and rate how risky they believed each one might be. Schwarz and Song found that the additives with difficult pronunciation were perceived as higher risk than the others, even though there was no factual correlation. This study shows just how easily familiarity can lead us astray.

Fluency and Design

Cognitive fluency greatly affects how people respond to designs, whether they’re meant for advertising or other purposes. Everything from font chosen, background contrast, colors used, and overall complexity of the design will affect how people react to it. People will often make their decisions on a design rapidly as well. For example, when it comes to web design, site visitors can make their decision about a webpage in as short as 50 milliseconds. If a site visitor can absorb information and form an opinion that quickly, it may seem that making your site design as fluent as possible is always the best choice, but it really depends on your goals. For informational or educational pages that visitors are meant to spend more time on, a disfluent design may actually be better.

Naturally, these concepts apply to all designs and viewers, not just websites and site visitors. Just as familiarity affects people’s perceptions of attractiveness in people, familiar sights in artwork tend to make them view the work more positively. A designer and/or artist can also be affected by fluency, in that the more time they spend on a project, the more likely they are to view it in a positive light. This is why designers should generally seek outside opinions before finishing projects.

Fluency and Truth

Not even a factual statement is necessarily safe from the influence of cognitive fluency. It’s unlikely anyone wants to believe their judgments of truth can be flawed, but there are ways to make statements appear more truthful. Ideally, any presented information should undergo an evaluation of the intelligence of the statement, but we’re all sometimes guilty of accepting things without checking sources. In another study conducted by Schwarz, it was found that statements presented in a more favorable manor were more likely to be judged as true. Participants were shown statements that varied in readability due to font and background colors, and those that were easier to read were more likely to be deemed true, regardless of the facts.

Applying Cognitive Fluency

If fluent processing can manipulate even our cognition of the truth, then it’s hard to overstate the power it holds. As previously stated, the areas of business and marketing are among those where you’ll most commonly see these concepts at work.

When trying to sell a new product, companies know they’re inherently at a disadvantage when it comes to familiarity. In order to achieve high conversions, they need to do more than simply explain a product’s use. They need to make owning it seem pleasant for potential customers, and they’ll do everything possible to achieve this. A product that is aesthetically pleasing is much more likely to sell, as is one from an already established brand. Companies will present products with striking color schemes, with testimonials from customers “just like you,” or use rhyming slogans to make them seem more familiar. They may even link their products to the hottest topics of the time to take advantage of any association they can produce.

Of course, it would be dishonest to suggest that fluent processing is constantly being used for intentionally manipulative purposes, but its hold on our decision making makes it more than worth being aware of.