Perceptual Fluency

There is a lot of research in the psychological literature on the topic of perceptual fluency: the ease with which information is processed. This literature has shown that fluency influences a wide variety of judgments and cognitive operations. One of my research foci is to explore the influence of fluency in more depth. Below are listed some of my main endeavors in this area.

Obfuscation in Writing

Most texts on writing style encourage authors to avoid over-complex words. However, a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. Both the experts and prevailing wisdom present plausible views, but which (if either) is correct? One way to look at this question is through the lens of perceptual fluency. As the complexity of vocabulary in a text increases, the fluency of proccessing of that text will decrease. Since fluency is typically related to a host of positive dimensions, this implies that as complexity increases, evaluations of the text, and the text's author will decrease.

One set of studies I have run has investigated this hypothesis. I have found that texts with more complex vocabulary are rated as having been written by LESS intelligent authors. This relationship holds for several levels of obfuscation, regardless of the quality of the essay, and irrespective of a reader's prior expectations.

Categorization and Fluency

Most research on categorization has focused on prototypes, exemplars, and features. Very little has been done to investigate whether something like perceptual fluency could play a role in categorization judgments. However, there is some evidence that fluency plays a role in just about every form of judgment, and there's no obvious reason why categorization should be different.

A simple test of fluency on categorization involves simply altering fonts. By degrading the font, and making the text harder to read, one can manipulate fluency without manipulating content. Normatively, having a slightly altered font should make no difference in people's categorization judgments, but I've found that such manipulations have large effects. For example people rate a robin to be a better example of the category "bird" when the font is clear, than when it is degraded. Further studies in this vein are being run.

The Warm Glow Heuristic

As noted previously, fluency influences a lot of judgements. This includes judgements of attractiveness, and judgements of famliarity. Thus, when an object is attractive, one is likely to believe it to be fluent, which in turn might lead one to believe it is familiar. Indeed, my advisor Benoit Monin has discovered that people tend to find attractive things more familiar -- a finding he has called the warm glow heuristic.

There are several other explanations for this finding aside from fluency, and one series of studies has been an attempt to further explore the warm glow heuristic and better understand the mechanisms underlying it. This also leads to questions and studies about the nature of fluency's impact on both familiarity and attractiveness, both of which I have investigated somewhat.

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