THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 31

Subject:  Cognitive Fluency – Easy = True 

Event:  “Easy = True” article published in The Boston Globe, 2010

Thinking is hard work, which is why so few people do it.  –Henry Ford

On this day in 2010, an article was published in The Boston Globe entitled “Easy = True.”  Written by journalist Drake Bennet, the article was about an emergent hot topic in psychology called cognitive fluency.  Cognitive fluency is a concept that relates to the ease at which we are able to think about something.  It seems obvious, but cognitive fluency reminds us that we don’t like thinking too hard and that the human species has a definite preference for things that are easy to think about.  These are the things we pay more attention to and the things that we remember better.  As a result, when we are presented with information, the easier it is for us to process, the more valid we perceive it — for example, if it is written in a clear font, if it rhymes, or if it is repeated.

We have a clear, instinctive bias for things that are familiar to us, which makes sense when you think about the way that our brains evolved.  Familiar things presented less of a threat, while unfamiliar things required scrutiny, which could be the difference between survival and being poisoned by a plant or eaten by a predator.

One excellent illustration of cognitive fluency comes from the research of psychologist Matthew McGlone.  He presented subjects with unfamiliar aphorisms, half of which were written in rhyming form, such as “Woes unite foes.”  The other half of the aphorisms were written in non-rhyming forms, such as “Woes unite enemies.”  Not only did people find the rhyming aphorisms more pleasing to the ear, but they also rated them as more accurate than their non-rhyming equivalents.  McGlone calls his discovery “the rhyme-as-reason effect.”  Most of us would intuitively realize that a rhyming slogan was more catchy and easy to remember, but how many of us would guess that the rhyming phrases would also be perceived as more inherently true? 

Whether we are delivering or receiving persuasive messages, cognitive fluency has important implications.  As stated by psychologist Adam Alter, 

Every purchase you make, every interaction you have, every judgment you make can be put along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. If you can understand how fluency influences judgment, you can understand many, many, many different kinds of judgments better than we do at the moment. (1)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is cognitive fluency, and how can knowing about it make you more persuasive?

Challenge – Parallel Proverbs:  The key ingredients for cooking up a more persuasive, more digestible message are repetition, clarity, and simplicity.  Rhyme and alliteration — which involve repetition of sounds — are two of the most common methods of repetition, but a more sophisticated method of repetition is parallelism, which involves the repetition of structure, such as Caesar’s famous declaration, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” which follows the repeated pattern pronoun verb, pronoun verb, pronoun verb.  Identify a proverb or aphorism that contains both wisdom parallelism.  Explain why you think the proverb is both well written and well reasoned.

Sources:

1-Bennett, Drake.  “Easy = True”  The Boston Globe  31 January 2010.

January 31: Factoid Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Norman Mailer (1923-2007).  Born in New Jersey, Mailer graduated from Harvard in 1944 and then served in the Philippines during World War II.  After the war, Mailer published a semi-autobiographical novel called The Naked and the Dead.  Based on his experiences in the war, The Naked and the Dead was incredibly successful and brought Mailer fame at just 25 years of age.

Writing in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Mailer coined the word “factoid,” a word that has taken on a number of interesting usages in the past few years.  In his biography of Monroe, Mailer defined factoids as “ . . . facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper . . . .” In its original sense, a factoid was not, as some believe, “a small fact”; rather, a factoid was an untruth that was stated as if it were an actual fact and was repeated so many times that many believed it to be true.  A classic example would be the often-stated belief that the Great Wall of China is visible from space.

It’s appropriate that Mailer would coin the word, considering the fact that his writing often blurred the lines between fiction and journalism.  For example, Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his novel The Executioner’s Song, a book that he called a “true-life novel,” and which is based on the actual events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore for murder by the state of Utah in 1967.

Because so many people have mistakenly mixed up the meaning of the words fact and factoid for so long, factoid has recently taken on another, opposite meaning to Mailer’s original definition.  Today when people use the word, they mean “a trivial or fascinating fact.”  So, we can sum up the interesting history of this word by saying the word that originally meant “a fake fact” has evolved to mean “an interesting fact.”

As a result of the history of the word’s usage, lexicographers would call factoid a contronym — a word that has two opposite definitions, as in the word “dust,” which can mean “to add fine particles” or “to remove fine particles.”  These words are sometimes also called “Janus words,” based on Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, gateways, and doorways (See January 1:  Exordium Day). Other examples of contronyms are apology, bolt, finished, handicap, trip, and weather.

Today’s Challenge:  Factlet or Factoid?

To clarify the often confusing and contradictory definitions of factoid, columnist William Safire suggested a new word be added to the English lexicon:  factlet, meaning “a small, arcane fact.”  By adopting factlet, writers would help readers differentiate between the two meanings of factoid.  How do you determine whether something is true or false?  When you’re reading, how do you determine whether something is fact or fiction?  Using a recent newspaper or magazine, gather five interesting factual details based on a variety of different articles; try for factlets – small, arcane facts.  Once you have a list of at least five factlets with citations, use your imagination to create five factoids — details that sound plausible but that are made up.  Finally, select a random item from your list of ten, and read it to a friend to see if they can tell the factlets from the factoids.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. -Mark Twain

1-Marsh, David.  A Factoid is Not a Small Fact. Fact. The Guardian.  17 Jan. 2014.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/jan/17/mind-your-language-factoids.