Think of Osorno when you hear applause on Question Time

Suppose I tell you that Osorno is a town in Chile. Am I telling the truth? It’s written there in black and white. Weirdly, that last point matters. Black and white is easy to read. Grey and white is hard to read. And if it’s easy to read, more people will believe it’s true.

For the same reason, stocks on the New York Stock Exchange with easy to pronounce codes (like KAR) tend to outperform ones that are harder to pronounce (like RDO) in their first few days of trading.

People like things that are easy for the brain to process, whether it’s clear writing or an easier word to say. Simple things are consistently rated more truthful, more familiar and they make us happier. People even think towns are further away if their names are written in an annoying font.

If you know that, it’s not a surprise that simple political positions tend to poll well. From capital punishment and immigration to controlling prices and nationalising railways, simple often does surprisingly well. Watch an episode of Question Time and see how the more simple the argument is, the more the speaker comes across as honest and somehow familiar, even if you don’t agree with them.

No one in politics has all the simple arguments to themselves. Business and governments normally have more complicated arguments than oppositions and charities. The left tends to get complicated when it talks about international affairs, redistribution or the causes of crime. The right tends to be complicated in its arguments for markets and profits.

Why do any of us stick to complicated arguments – whether they be Marxist dialectics or liberal economics? One answer is that the complicated answers are often right: the world isn’t flat, no matter how honest-sounding flat earth advocates might be. The effect of simplicity may only be weak when people know a lot about an issue or have other cues to follow.

Another answer is that after you’ve learnt a complicated argument, you remember it, while simple arguments – despite seeming familiar – are very easy to forget. So people who’ve learnt something tricky tend to stick with it, while people who’ve agreed with a simple argument might find themselves nodding along to another simple argument a week later.

References:

Alter, A. L. & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluency. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 103(24), 9369-9372.

Alter, A. L. & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2008). Effects of Fluency on Psychological Distance and Mental Construal (or Why New York Is a Large City, but New York Is a Civilized Jungle). Psychological Science, 19(2). 161-167.

Castel, A.D., McCabe, D.P. & Roediger, H.L. III. (2007). Illusions of competence and overestimation of associative memory for identical items: Evidence from judgments of learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(1). 107-111.

Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D.M. & Vaughan, E.B. (2010). Fortune favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012 Cognition.

Reber, R. & Schwarz, N. (1999). Effects of Perceptual Fluency on Judgments of Truth. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 338-342

Winkielman, P. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2001) Mind at Ease Puts a Smile on the Face: Psychophysiological Evidence That Processing Facilitation Elicits Positive Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(6), 989-1,000.

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