Writing for Cognitive Ease

In his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman takes us on a fascinating tour of the brain, exploring two theoretical systems that drive the way we think and make choices: “System 1” is fast, intuitive, and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative and more logical. As experience designers, we want to appeal to both.

Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for illuminating the motivations behind risky decision-making. Before Gladwell and Levitt made it fashionable, Kahneman was enthralling readers with insight into the biases that drive human decision-making. In his new book, Kahneman summarises these cognitive biases and their effect on our view of the world. He highlights the difference between our experience and our memory of events, and the real components of happiness. It’s no surprise that Dr. Susan Weinschenk recently placed it at the top of her list Top 10 Psychology Books You Should Read.

In this, the second of two articles concerning the psychology of user experience (for the first, see Total (Memory) Recall), we’ll address the two systems; we’ll learn how they operate. To help explain things, we’ll try some quick thought experiments. From there, we’ll look at the concepts of Cognitive Ease and its opposite, Cognitive Stress. Finally, we’ll investigate ways in which designers can take advantage of these theories to create experiences that are as stress-free as possible.

A tale of two systems

In psychology, a “dual process theory” provides an account of how a phenomenon occurs in the mind as a result of two different processes. Often, the two processes consist of an unconscious (automatic) process and an conscious (controlled) process. Psychologists Stanovich and West coined the following terms in their 2000 paper “Individual difference in reasoning: implications for the rationality debate?:

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.

The aforementioned author, Daniel Kahneman, explains how these systems work together:

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

To illustrate these systems, take a look at the following photo:

Whether you know it or not, you just (subconsciously) took in a considerable amount of information about the person in this photo: their hair colour, their skin tone, and, presumably, their mood and mental state. Yet no one asked you to. This is an example of fast thinking or “System 1.”

Now consider the following sum:

19 × 27

Upon seeing this – unless you’re a savant – you likely don’t get an immediate, innate, sense of the answer. You probably do get the feeling you’d be able to work it out, given enough time. You might even have a rough idea what range the answer sits in; you’d be able to recognize that the answers 20 and 20,000 are wrong. But the actual answer eludes you.

If you haven’t already, attempt the multiplication in your head. What follows is an example of System 2’s “slow thinking.”

When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices and decides what to think about what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is…System 1 is the hero.

Indeed, System 2 can be lazy. Kahneman and his colleague, Shane Frederick, use another puzzle to demonstrate this. Again, don’t attempt to consciously solve the problem. Just listen to your inner System 1 (your intuition):

Together, a bat and ball cost $  1.10.
The bat costs $  1 more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

If you’re able to suppress System 2 for a moment, you might answer 10 cents:

“The distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing and wrong.”

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow [emphasis added]

If you now engage System 2, you’ll see that if the ball was 10¢ and the bat was $ 1 more than 10¢ ($ 1 + 10¢) the total price would be $ 1.20. The correct answer is of course 5¢ (5¢ + ($ 1+5¢) = $ 1.10).

The purpose of this test is to show how easily people rely on their gut instincts rather than work hard at answering the actual question. Where possible, people take shortcuts to reduce the mental effort of making decisions. This doesn’t make them stupid, of course, As Harry Brignull writes, User laziness = user smartness.

Thousands of students – maybe even you – have attempted the Bat and Ball puzzle and hundreds have answered it incorrectly. Even at Princeton and Harvard, students get it wrong almost half the time.

“The bat and ball problem is our first encounter with an observation: that many people find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible”

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Ease and strain

Imagine a dashboard for your conscious self: a series of gauges and dials recording your mental activity. These measurements are under constant supervision by System 1. When one of the gauges moves into the red, action is taken to address the imbalance.

On one of these dials is a label marked “cognitive workload.” On the left-side of the dial is “Easy” and on the right, in the red, “Strained.” “Easy” means you’re doing OK; you’re coasting along and there are no major obstacles that require your attention. If something pops up and requires your consideration, the dial swings into the red. System 2 is called in to help.

Something that is easy, cognitively speaking, feels familiar, true, good and effortless. Kahneman explains:

When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are probably in a good mood, [you] like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

This is exactly where we want our users to be; we don’t want to Make Them Think:

When you feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious: [you] invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you also are less intuitive and less creative than usual.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Illusions of grandeur

In a series of experiments titled “Becoming Famous Overnight”, psychologist Larry Jacoby managed to instill a sense of familiarity in his test subjects just by exposing them to random names.

In a related experiment, Jacoby presented participants with a list of non-famous names. The next day he presented the same names, but this time he added some new ones to the list: some famous people and some non-famous. The results were startling. When asked to to report which were “famous,” participants frequently identified non-famous names as famous.

The results of Jacoby’s study serve as an example of the “Mere Exposure Effect” – the preference people have for things they’re acquainted with. Mere exposure was first coined by the late Robert Zajonc, who dedicated much of his professional life to studying the link between the repetition of a stimulus to the sense of ease people develop for that stimulus. Zajonc’s logic was that “The consequences of repeated exposures benefit the organism in its relation to the immediate environment. They allow the organism to distinguish objects and habitats that are safe from those that are not.”

What Zajonc, Jacoby and a number of subsequent experimenters managed to show was that these non-famous names look familiar when you see them because, in Kahneman’s words: “you will see [them] more clearly. Words … seen before become easier to see again.”

Truth illusions and writing persuasively

Visitors come to our site for its content, so we want to write words that people will believe, that people will understand. Unfortunately, just being accurate and honest isn’t enough. We must also induce cognitive ease.

The study of truth illusions can lend a hand here. Kahneman has us consider the following two statements:

Adolf Hitler was born in 1892
Adolf Hitler was born in 1887

In fact:

Both are false (Hitler was born in 1889) but experiments have shown that the first is more likely to be believed.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Why would this be so?

All of us live much of our life guided by the impressions of System 1 – and we often do not know the source of these impressions. How do you know that a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic … or comes from a source you trust … you will feel a sense of cognitive ease. The trouble is that there might be other causes for your feeling of ease. On most occasions … the lazy System 2 will adopt the suggestions of System 1 and march on.”

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

In his wonderfully-titled paper “Danny Oppenheimer showed that using pretentious and needlessly complex language is actually associated with poor intelligence and low credibility – by Princeton University professors at least. Anecdotally, this seems to match real-world experiences: how often have you listened to someone spout endless buzzwords – erudite vernacular – only to discover they actually haven’t actually said anything at all!


By keeping abreast of the latest research in psychology and brain systems, we can effectively increase the feeling of ease in our products and thereby reduce cognitive strain. Some simple suggestions to implement today include:

  • Use terminology your visitors are familiar with and will have seen before.
  • Avoid the use of specialist jargon, even if you believe your audience is familiar with it.
  • If you must use specialised terms, define them well and use them early and often.
  • Make sure your special terms are literally easy to read – increase their quality of ease.
  • Use high-quality screen fonts and maximise contrast between characters and their background.

The post Writing for Cognitive Ease appeared first on UX Booth.

The UX Booth

Leave a Comment