We think pronounceable anagrams are easier, but they’re harder

When you’re trying to solve an anagram (that is, re-arranging a jumble of letters to form a word), sometimes the string of letters looks like complete gobbledygook and impossible to solve, but other times, the anagram is pronounceable, or parts of it are, and the challenge appears a good deal easier.

Now a new article in the journal Cognition shows this intuitive assessment, though shared by most people, is completely wrong. We think the pronounceability of an anagram is an indicator that it will be easier to solve, but in fact it is well established by prior research that the converse is true – pronounceable anagrams are actually trickier and take longer to solve.

Sascha Topolinski and her colleagues conducted 7 studies in all, involving dozens of men and women with a mix of professional backgrounds. The general format throughout was similar – the participants were presented with successive letter strings – these were either anagrams or unsolvable jumbles of letters – and their task was to make various judgments, such as whether the string of letters was solvable (i.e. a true anagram), and how much effort or time it would take to solve. By varying the characteristics of the letter strings, the researchers were able to find out what cues people use to judge whether an anagram is solvable, and, if so, how easy it will be to solve.

Shorter anagrams are easier to solve than longer ones, and the participants used this cue correctly when making their judgments. However, they also consistently and mistakenly judged that easier to pronounce letter strings are more likely to be solvable, and will take less effort to solve. In fact, whether a jumble of letters is pronounceable or not says nothing about whether it is an anagram (as opposed to unsolvable), and as we heard, pronounceable anagrams are actually harder to solve than non-pronouceable ones. This mistake was made even by participants with lots of anagram experience.

Topolinski and her colleagues think people’s error of judgment about pronounceable anagrams (and unsolvable letter strings) is an extension of the fluency effect – the way that we make positive assumptions about things that we find easier to process (some examples from our own archive include the findings that engaging lecturers encourage overconfidence; that shares with simple names perform better on the stock market; and conversely that speakers with a foreign accent are judged less credible).

Intriguingly, the researchers speculate that it could be our misjudgment about anagram pronounceability that actually contributes to pronounceable anagrams being extra difficult, because we end up “allocating fewer resources to the problem solving process” when we’re confronted by an easy-to-pronounce anagram.

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Topolinski, S., Bakhtiari, G., & Erle, T. (2016). Can I cut the Gordian tnok? The impact of pronounceability, actual solvability, and length on intuitive problem assessments of anagrams Cognition, 146, 439-452 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.10.019

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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