Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Avoiding irrelevance and dilution: Construal-level theory, the endowment effect, and the art of omission

Deciding what to omit (omission) is one of three fundamental writing skills—besides fluency and cohesiveness—supporting the two major Writing Virtues: Clarity and Concision. Although omission is a sophisticated skill not acquirable through panaceas, it is unique among the three fundamental skills because a single roadblock causes most of the congestion. The roadblock is the writer’s innate aversion to deletion; the aversion derives from a universal cognitive bias called loss aversion, meaning we’d rather maintain the status quo than bet a significant amount on the flip of a coin. (See D. Kahneman, Thinking, fast and slow (2011).) The most dramatic expression of loss aversion is the endowment effect: owners will sell property only at a much higher price than they would pay to acquire it. Loss aversion explains an impressive part of wordy or irrelevant writing because it makes adding matter easier than deleting it.

Construal-level theory is a theory about decision and judgment that explains loss aversion and teaches us how to avoid it in writing. Construal-level theory deals with the biases the distinction between practice and theory introduces into our thinking. When our objectives are immediate, the information available rich, and time bountiful, we analyze in a way of thinking called near-mode, which uses high-grain, concrete concepts and attends to incidental features. When our objectives are long-term and the information or time scant, we analyze in a way of thinking called far-mode, which uses low-grain, abstract concepts and focuses on the essential.

Construal-level theory furnishes an explanation of loss aversion and the endowment effect. (D. Kahneman, supra.) Consider a standard example of the endowment effect: a holder of concert tickets costing $50, the most the concert-goer would have paid, refuses to sell for $300. More usually, we value property about twice as much just because we happen to own it already. Construal-level theory explains loss aversion by the tendency to give greater importance to the near than the far. Analogously, we over-value what we’ve written because it’s near, and we’re loathe to part with it.

Construal-level theory has unearthed another source of our reluctance to cut inferior matter: the audience reads in far-mode, which is global, but legal writers often compose it in near-mode, which is sequential. The consequence is that the audience averages the quality of the documents’ parts, whereas the writer is apt to add their quality, meaning that, for the audience, subpar arguments detract from overall quality but, to the writer, they may seem to increase the quality. (K. Weaver et al., The presenter's paradox (Oct. 2012) 39 Journal of Consumer Research 445 [Hat Tip: Overcoming Bias].)

Construal-level theory provides insights to help writers overcome the biases implicated in writing in near-mode for an audience reading in far-mode. Writing systems involving different roles for the author, such as the roles of writer and editor, serve to vary the author’s mode. Specifically for brief writing, Bryan Garner has advanced a more elaborate system of roles, which are distinctively near and far. (B. Garner, The winning brief (1999) at p. 3) The chart below displays the Flowers roles, their typical activities, and the mode mainly engaged.

Flowers-paradigm role
Typical activities
Mode from construal-level theory
Brainstorming, “Deep thought,” background research
Outlining, planning, detailed research
Primary writing
Editing, proofreading

Madman is far because it encourages intuition, a far-mode product. (See G. Gigerenzer, Gut feelings: The Intelligence of the unconscious (2008).) Architect is near-mode because it accentuates logical relationships, which depend heavily on sequencing, a near-mode activity. Carpenter is far-mode because it attempts to make ideas intelligible to others. Judge is near-mode because it involves close reading for error.

The alternation of phases is powerfully effective in engaging both modes without causing the mutual interference to which they are prone when combined simultaneously. It is so effective that the modes can be seen to alternate within roles. Although Madman is predominantly far-mode, it includes periods of near-mode activity, such as close reading of selected cases. Judge, although mostly near-mode, may include far-mode phases, such as hearing the document read aloud. Carpenter and Architect usually alternate more than once, because Carpenter excels at abstraction and Architect at sequencing.

Construal-level theory offers far-mode as the remedy for excess. Because of the relationship between the endowment effect and near-mode, cutting excess is performed most effectively in far-mode, and typical problems in legal writing occur when lawyers compose their briefs in near-mode, often because they write their briefs while they read cases closely. The result is not only the absence of the big picture but also an accumulation of excess. To avoid much of this excess, learn to write in far-mode, and master the research in near-mode in the Architect phase.

Some common advice is misguided because it contributes to excess. Writers are often instructed to be Madmen in the Carpenter role, but although both Madman and Carpenter are far-mode, Carpenter provides the opportunity to pare down irrelevant matter generated in the Madman phase, and the advice to suspend the critic when doing primary writing sacrifices the main opportunity to trim excess. This shouldn’t be left to the Judge, as editing is a near-mode activity, and among the errors the Judge isn’t good at correcting is excess. The erroneous advice comes from seeing an alternation between writer and critic rather than between near-mode and far-mode.

Both far-mode phases are good for trimming excess, as the writer can take steps to stem excess in the Madman role despite heeding the advice to suspend the critic. Although this advice applies to Madman, not to Carpenter, when applied to Madman it admits critical comments. To take advantage of the Madman to combat excess, treat critical ideas related to scope and breadth just as you would any other ideas. If you’re brainstorming, if you think you’ve come up with an idea of doubtful relevance, you should note that thought alongside the idea itself. Having added exclusion as an idea, you will later be unable to avoid discarding one idea or the other, the marginal thought itself and the imperative to disregard it. Therefore, near-mode’s reluctance to part with sentences will resist rejecting the idea to discard as much as it resists rejecting the idea itself.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Uncomfortable ideas and disfluent expression affect us similarly

Cognitive fluency
Integrating the research on cognitive fluency and cognitive dissonance can enrich our understanding of the cognitive strain (or excessive disfluency) produced by convoluted expression. I’ve extensively discussed  research on cognitive fluency-disfluency, whose basic lesson is that when a message is understood effortlessly it is more believable. Daniel Kahneman in his landmark work in cognitive psychology, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) at pp. 62 – 64, provides the following advice on minimizing cognitive strain in persuasive writing:

Cognitive dissonance
The term now part of the vernacular, cognitive dissonance, a social-psychology research program started by Leon Festinger in 1956, refers to our aversion to disharmonious ideas, but there’s unfortunately no quick way to understand what disharmonizes ideas. You have to grasp the concept from key experiments. I present two, displaying the breadth of the cognitive-dissonance concept:

In the “$1 and $20 experiment,” subjects performed a boring task, which they understood as the experiment’s real purpose, and they then sought to persuade another subject to participate on the ground that the experience was interesting. One group was offered $1 and the other $20 for their persuasive efforts (today’s values would be inflated by a factor of 7.5). Both groups subsequently evaluated the boring task’s enjoyability. The then-surprising result, as Festinger predicted, was that the subjects receiving $1 rated the boring task more interesting than did the subjects receiving $20. The counter-intuitiveness of the results is what made cognitive dissonance the most popular research program in social psychology in the 1960s: under the reigning reinforcement theory, the subjects in the $20 condition should have rated the task more interesting, since they were reinforced (rewarded) more for claiming it was interesting. Festinger had predicted the results by reasoning that the subjects in the $1 condition would experience more cognitive dissonance due to the disharmoniousness  between the two beliefs: 1) they had misrepresented a boring task and 2) they had done it for a mere dollar.

In another study, Festinger observed a group of fanatics who believed the end of the world was nigh and sought to prepare for it. When the world didn’t end, rather than relinquish their belief, they elaborated and deepened it by explaining away the disconfirmation and becoming yet more fanatical. To make their beliefs more harmonious, they construed the apparent disconfirmation as confirmation.

While my concern is to apply cognitive-dissonance research to cognitive strain, which is directly relevant to writing persuasively, cognitive fluency also clarifies cognitive dissonance, needing clarification because defining the harmoniousness that reduces dissonance is elusive. Social psychologist Eliot Aronson had proposed that cognitive dissonance comes from conflicts with self-concept, but recent research hasn’t supported this interpretation: choices affect beliefs even when the earlier beliefs are forgotten. (See Coppin et. al, I'm No Longer Torn after Choice: How Explicit Choices Implicitly Shape Preferences for Odors (2010) Psychological Science 21(4) 489 ‒ 493.) Cognitive-fluency theory suggests that disharmonious (dissonant) beliefs are beliefs whose understanding takes effort. They are disfluent beliefs, although the disfluency arises not from the manner of expression, as in cognitive-fluency research, but from the content of the beliefs.

Just as cognitive disfluency is useful in persuasion, so is cognitive dissonance, although the uses of dissonance, like those of disfluency, have been largely overlooked. To discourage the error of ignoring dissonance’s uses, I’ll offer a few obvious examples supporting the position that just as there’s an optimal level of fluency, so there’s an optimal level of dissonance needed to maintain a reader’s interest. It’s well known that skilled readers of fiction prefer complex to simple characters; paradox can be useful in exposition; and implausible beliefs and even logical contradiction have helped make religions popular—as with the Trinity doctrine.

Lessons for persuasive writing
Now for what cognitive dissonance research implies about cognitive fluency. The research on cognitive dissonance conceives it as a drive to reduce an unpleasant arousal state: we’re motivated to reduce dissonance. (Kiesler and Pallak, Arousal properties of dissonance manipulations (1976) Psychological Bulletin, 83(6), 1014 ‒ 1025.) Cognitive-fluency researchers haven’t considered the motivation behind the preference for cognitive ease, but if cognitive-dissonance reduction is due to the motive that also enhances the believability of fluent messages, that has lessons for writers. The difference is that cognitive strain's unpleasantness motivates the reader to reject the disfluent expression, not only to find the fluent more credible. The analogy to cognitive dissonance suggests that when we disbelieve the disfluent, it’s because believing the disfluent is uncomfortable. Since we must believe to understand, unpleasant affect associated with the effort to understand prejudices the reader against the proposition itself even when it’s later expressed clearly.

The implication is that persuasive writers should avoid unwarranted disfluencies even when they're immediately clarified. If a concept is hard to understand without examples, prematurely presented conceptualizations undermine subsequent understanding. It's better to introduce the examples before the proposition they support.

Cognitive strain's unpleasantness supports using the method of successive approximations for introducing complex ideas. To use successive approximation, the writer presents a simplified concept that is subsequently elaborated in a series of changes, each simple enough to avoid cognitive strain.