The Easier It Is, The Safer It Seems

Self-identified rational people take pride in the fact that they can’t be easily manipulated, but of course that’s the pride part of their dumb monkey brains talking. Here’s an interesting study that measured whether hard-to-pronounce words were perceived as riskier than words that were easier to pronounce—in this case, by comparing fake additives in food and asking which ones were more likely to be harmful.

Patrick at Very Evolved wrote about the study last month:

What would you think if I told you that the food you have in your cupboard contains either the preservative Hnegripitrom or Magnalroxate, and that one of these was dangerous?

The fictional food additives are from a recent set of experiments where researchers presented their names to people and asked them to rate how dangerous they thought they were on a scale of 1 to 7. If you’re like most people with an English speaking background then you rated Hnegripitrom as more dangerous than Magnalroxate.

…if you are like most people then you don’t have an advanced degree in organic chemistry, so what are you basing your judgment on?

The researchers had a clue and designed this experiment to test one simple thing: The link between ease of pronunciation and how our brain judges risk.

The researchers also performed the test with fictional names of roller coasters, and again the harder-to-pronounce names were scored as being riskier—even though in this case risky isn’t entirely negative.

Surprisingly the results were the same: Hard to pronounce rides were rated as more dangerous (there’s a risk of getting sick) but also much more fun than the rides that easily rolled off the tongue. The conclusion we can draw from this is fascinating: It doesn’t matter if we want it to be dangerous or safe, the harder to pronounce words are always seen as being riskier.

So, what’s the point? Well, marketers already know that familiarity breeds trust, but it also looks like your brain equates being easy to comprehend as equivalent to being familiar. I always thought marketers dumbed stuff down because, well, so many people are kind of dumb. In reality, if you dumb something down you’re much more likely to get people to intuitively judge it as less risky—and if you want to convey excitement, complicating the name or concept slightly might do the trick.

“Dangerous Words” [Very Evolved]
“If It’s Difficult to Pronounce, It Must Be Risky” [Wiley InterScience]
(Photo: adotjdotsmith)