Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, talks about 2 types of thinking, System 1, and System 2. System 1 is the heuristic kind, where things happen in near real time. Things just come to you—like when, while driving, you start to react to someone coming into your lane before you’re consciously aware of a problem… Intuition. System 2 is the more analytical kind—the kind you experience while trying to back into a tight space, or when doing your tax.
While System 1 has its benefits—super quick processing; fight or flight—we can be lead astray by it, as we make these kind of decisions based only on the experiences or data we have at hand. It’s easy to miss things. System 2 on the other hand, is mentally exhausting, but we’re less likely to miss things.
Guess which type of thinking people generally prefer?
This brings us to the idea of ‘cognitive ease’.
You will have experienced the difficulty of trying to write something in a noisy environment, or read a website overloaded with dense text. These are examples of of situations that create low cognitive ease. And these kind of situations trigger System 2 thinking, which—putting us into analytical mode—means we’ll be more likely to find fault with something; we’ll be more sceptical.
Conversely, if content is written in plain English, using words that are familiar to readers, you create a situation with high cognitive ease, which keeps people in their happy place—System 1.
Kahneman’s book references a study which basically says that people are more likely to trust, and agree with something they read if it’s in familiar terms.
So, what’s a familiar term?
Everyone will be different, depending on cultural and occupational differences; however, it’s reasonable to use a readability score as a basic measure.
We should note that readability scores are more accurate when analysing longer pieces of text. The readability algorithm uses the number of words in a sentence, and the number of syllables in a word as the basis for its score. However, as you know, not all longer words are uncommon (e.g. television), and not all shorter words are well known (e.g. keck). More over, readability algorithms can’t differentiate sentence forms that are easier to understand (like bulleted lists) than others—such as, oh, the kind that makes up a great deal of legislation.
For these reasons, a readability score is just a guide—and realistically, you need to analyse several paragraphs (~300 words) at a minimum to give a moderately representative score. You also need to take into account the lexicon of your targeted audience. In certain industries, terms that others may consider jargon—like ‘usability‘ and ‘accessibility‘—have a clear, understood meaning to people within that industry.
But going back to the idea that people are more likely to trust something they read if it’s in familiar terms…
Is it too far of a stretch to relate this back to the idea that content with a low grade level score is likely to win more conversions?