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:
- Maximize legibility.
- Do not use complex language when simpler language will do.
- Make the message memorable.
- Choose sources with names that are easy to pronounce.
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.