The Calculated Creative

5 Feelings that Clarity Provides (The Pleasure of Cognitive Ease)

Fluency exerts influence over preferences and perceptions. Our minds have evolved to interpret fluency as beautiful truth that feels good.

There's a reason why designers get beyond peeved when they're told to:

  • Add another section of sales copy
  • Make the logo bigger
  • Make it pop

So much so that they've all become running jokes.

On first glance it makes sense from a marketing perspective that you'd want to jam as much information in that sales sheet as possible.

Or make the logo bigger.

Or add another color pop.

The problem, though, is that none of this actually works.

What is Cognitive Ease?

Cognitive ease is described by psychologists as the state of having an easy or smooth processing of information. It occurs when information is presented in a way that makes it simple for the mind to process and comprehend.

Research shows there are a variety of pleasures and benefits associated with states of cognitive ease. A few of these include:

  • Clarity - The information uses straightforward, unambiguous language and clearly defines key terms and concepts. There is an absence of vagueness or semantic confusion surrounding the ideas.
  • Coherence - The logic flows in an orderly, linear fashion. Arguments make intuitive sense, with conclusions naturally proceeding from premises. There is meaningful organization rather than a disjointed mess.
  • Fluency - The receiver experiences seamless, effortless integration of the material. The parsing feels smooth and facile rather than interrupted or disjointed. There are no inconsistent gaps demanding mental reconciliation.

Research contrasts this with states of cognitive strain where understanding requires intense mental effort. Complex, confusing presentations place heavy demands on working memory to try to "make sense" of concepts and connections. The mind struggles to fill in gaps and resolve inconsistencies.

The difference between cognitive ease and strain is akin to the difference between calmly floating down a gentle river versus being tossed about randomly in violent whitewater rapids. One brings relaxation, the other anxiety.

The Many Pleasures of Cognitive Ease

Decades of research by cognitive psychologists has revealed that fluent processing is powerfully linked to feelings of pleasure, beauty, trustworthiness and validity. Specific pleasures include:

1. A Sense of Subjective Clarity

When concepts flow logically, the whole topic feels subjectively clearer in our mind. We have a metacognitive sense that the content is more transparent, intelligible, and comprehensible. This feeling of clarity is pleasurable and boosts confidence in one's grasp. Confusion alternatively leads to frustration and feelings of ignorance.

2. Heightened Positive Emotion

Fluency often heightens positive emotion regarding the experience itself. When texts exhibit cognitive ease, readers report higher interest, enjoyment, and appreciation of the content. Information that flows smoothly literally generates good feelings as it is processed. Difficult material has negative emotional valence.

3. Feelings of Beauty and Talent

Fluency influences perceptions of aesthetic quality and talent. Studies find fluent poems are rated as more creative and skillful writing. Drawings easier to parse are judged as more aesthetically pleasing. Across domains fluency marks output as prettier and more artfully produced - even when fluency is manipulated unrelated to actual quality.

4. Feelings of Truth

An especially powerful effect is that fluency gives rise to an "Illusion of Truth" effect. Statements easier to process feel more truthful and valid regardless of actual veracity. Complex, confusing assertions fail to garner credibility and belief even when backed by evidence. This contributes to halo effects biasing evaluations and preferences.

5. Sustained Motivation and Engagement

Cognitive ease sustains motivation and engagement with content. When material flows smoothly, people enter states of effortless concentration wanting to continue immersion. Confusion causes attention to break down and motivation to drift as processing stalls. Ease = happiness = stick-to-it-iveness.


The Takeaway

Across many areas fluency provides a subjective "cognitive value-add", exerting profound influence over preferences and perceptions. Our minds have evolved to interpret fluency as beautiful truth that feels good.

So next time you're keen on adding more copy to the page, increasing the size of the logo, or jamming in yet another pop of color...

Gut check yourself against the principle of cognitive ease.

Are you allowing the feelings of clarity, positivity, and truth to come forward?

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