Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How new is cognitive fluency?

Except for the Baker law-review article discussed in the Disputed Issues entry on cognitive disfluency, and the Disputed Issues entry applying cognitive-fluency principles to citation formats, the legal-writing world has paid scant attention to the spate of cognitive-fluency research, which appraises simplicity’s benefits and drawbacks for document reception. Plain-language blogger Cheryl Stephens captures what may be the chary outlook of many legal writers:

Scientific research has expanded so much in the last 20 years that plain language practitioners could not keep up. Money for research is needed to ensure that plain language procedures take advantage of current scientific discoveries. The most significant of these seem to be in the new area of study: cognitive fluency.

Another likely source of neglect is a prevalent belief that cognitive fluency is but a fashionable name for well-known effects. The cognitive-fluency results are new but not hard to understand, yet embodying the results in crisp recommendations is elusive, requiring an understanding of the tension between the writing Virtues Clarity and Concision, as their reciprocal modulation balances fluency and disfluency.

Cognitive fluency can seem like old hat because writers have long appreciated the value of minimizing mental effort for comprehension. Much of the recent findings’ novelty lies in in the advantages of disfluency; but even regarding fluency’s advantages, the research differs from traditional understanding, where avoidance of unnecessary complexity is based on the reader’s limited capacity to maintain multiple thoughts in a conscious state simultaneously, a rationale defining simplicity as well as justifying it. At least as long ago as 1852, when philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote The Philosophy of Style, this limited-capacity concept underpinned the rationale that the less capacity readers must allocate to decoding a communication, the more they can allocate to thinking about it. Readers were also expected to be less likely to misunderstand the simple, since it left spare capacity. The Disputed Issues entry “A rare shortcut to better writing” applied the hoary theory of limited-capacity attention to writing’s production, to explain how faster typing improves it. Science had seemingly vindicated the limited-capacity theory when psychologist George Miller published his finding that humans had a limited short-term memory capacity that varied between five and nine bits of information, as when a tester reads a digit series, one number per second, and few subjects will be able to remember more than nine or less than five. Miller’s finding this consistent limitation of conscious apprehension—Miller’s famous “magic number seven plus or minus two”—ensured that the digit-span test would remain part of standard intelligence testing, despite the low correlation with general intellect.

The past decade’s cognitive psychology retains the concept of working memory, but reconceptualizes it as the person’s skill in directing attention to recently conscious or related thoughts, which, hypothetically, are “activated” but unconscious. The subject’s preconscious thoughts—to use Freud’s term for ideation not conscious but amenable to being made so—are accessed in experiments where the subject is diverted from a memory task by subsequent attention-consuming operations. An easy test of this kind is given during standard psychiatric mental-status examinations, when the tester directs the patient to recall three words, which must be recited at the end of the examination, during which the tester elicits unrelated information. That the important component of working memory isn’t limited by fixed storage implies that we can’t deduce mnemonic efficiency from simplicity (which is to say, from cognitive fluency). Here’s an example—compare (1) and (2):

(1) Sentences can be short. They can also be long. This is a good thing. Lack of variety is wearying. It may drive you to distraction.

(2) It’s a good thing that sentences can be short or long, because lack of variety is wearying and may drive you to distraction. (H/T: Mark Nichol, Daily Writing Tips [for the examples].)

The four-sentence version (1) is simpler, its simple sentences bereft of complicating structural nuance. Speaking theoretically, the complex sentence (2) activates more unconscious ideas, inducing a more powerful working memory, not one limited to the simple sentences’ smaller ambit.

If the clearest prose isn’t the most fluent, if clarity is an optimum on the fluent – disfluent dimension, then the advantages of clarity aren’t those of simplicity. What, then, is the advantage of clarity? The answer might seem self-evident. Obviously, it might be thought, a writer wants to be clear so that he will be understood to mean what he does mean. Clarity means easily understood, the “obvious” thought continues, and the easier it is to understand, the more likely it will be understood. But this is fallacy. What requires less effort to understand is not, in logic or in fact, necessarily clearer, more likely to be understood—not if greater effort is forthcoming. This is the nontraditional conclusion on which cognitive-fluency and working-memory research converge.

1 comment:

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