A conversation with Adam Alter over at Edge:

Adam Alter is interested in examining the concrete ways in which we are affected by subtle cues, such as symbols, culture, and colors. Why are Westerners easily fooled by the Müller-Lyer illusion of two lines with different arrows at their ends, while Bushmen from southern Africa are not? Why do certain colors have a calming effect on the intoxicated? Why is it that people with easy-to-pronounce names get ahead in life?

In this conversation, we get an overview of Alter's current line of work on how we experience fluent and disfluent information. Fluency implies that information that comes at a very low cost, often because it is already familiar to us in some similar form. Disfluency occurs when information is costly–perhaps it takes a lot of effort to understand a concept, or a name is unfamiliar and therefore difficult to say. His work has interesting implications in the realms of market forces (stocks with pronounceable ticker codes tend to do better when they first enter the market than those that don't, for instance) and globalization, and is highly relevant in a world where cultures continue to meet and to merge.

Jennifer Jacquet

The basic idea here is that when you have a thought, any thought, it falls along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. A fluent thought is one that feels subjectively easy to have. When you speak English and you come across a common English name, like John, or Tom, or Ted, it's very, very easy to process that name. There's no difficulty in reading the name and in making sense of the name.

At the other end of the spectrum you might come across a foreign name or a novel name that you've never seen before or perhaps a name that you've seen before, but spelled very differently. In that case it's going to be much more difficult to process the name. Then it will be disfluent or subjectively difficult to process. It will feel more difficult to process. There's not only the content, what the name happens to be, and what it's like to store that information, but also what it's like to have the thoughts of processing the name, of making sense of the name.

This is a topic that I've been very interested in, and I've been interested in the concept of fluency and how that might affect a whole lot of different judgments that we make, and the way we process the world. The most basic effects in fluency research are pretty straightforward, and the idea is that when something is fluent, you feel differently about it from how you would feel if it were more difficult to process. I'll give you a few examples from my own research.

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