If you want people to recognise that a substance is dangerous – give it a complicated, hard-to-pronounce name. That’s the implication of a new study that suggests we use a simple rule-of-thumb when judging risk. If something is easy to process and digest – for example, by virtue of being easy to pronounce – we tend to assume that it’s familiar and safe. By contrast, if it seems hard to process, we assume it’s novel and likely to be risky. These kinds of mental short cuts are known as heuristics and psychologists enjoy uncovering them because they show how our minds have evolved to cope with the constant storm of information and stimulation hurled their way.
In an initial study, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz found that student participants rated made-up food additives as more harmful if the they had hard-to-pronounce names such as Hnegripitrom, as compared with easier to pronounce names like Magnalroxate. A follow-up study suggested that this effect was partially explained by perceived novelty. That is, easy-to-pronounce additives were judged to be more familiar as well as being safer.
Another explanation for the effect of fluency on risk perception is that we enjoy fluency, which biases us to see things as less risky because risk is negative. A third study undermined this account. Student participants rated easy-to-pronounce fairground rides as less risky, even in the context of that risk being a good thing – in this case “exciting and adventurous”.
“From an applied perspective, our findings suggest that fluency manipulations may offer a promising avenue for the management of perceived risk,” the researchers said. “For example, disfluent product names may alert consumers to the risks posed by potentially hazardous products.”
These findings add to a growing literature on the effects of fluency on our decision making. In 2006, for example, Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer showed that people tend to invest more in companies with easy-to-pronounce names. Meanwhile, a 2005 study showed that writers who adopt a simple style are perceived to be more intelligent.
Link to full-text pdf via author website.
Song, H., & Schwarz, N. (2009). If It’s Difficult to Pronounce, It Must Be Risky. Psychological Science, 20 (2), 135-138 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02267.x