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)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Ninja007 says:

    ppl you gotta watch out for dihydrogen monoxide

  2. farcedude says:

    Now, this doesn’t surprise me too much, nor does it worry me too much. Those of us without advanced degrees in organic chemistry have to do something in order to judge whether or not an ingredient in what we’re eating is safe for us. I remember reading somewhere something like “if you can’t recognize the ingredients on the package, it’s not food, it’s entertainment.” (Pick up a package of dehydrated potatoes sometime, it’ll scare you).

    • Benguin says:

      @farcedude: I’m going to go out on a limb and assume it’s not just “Ingredients: potatoes” ?

    • floraposte says:

      @farcedude: It’s not likely to be a problem in food, since longevity is generally a good thing on edible ingredients. But when you’re looking at something like hand-cleaner or shampoo or shower wash, it’s not really going to be reliable, and if you opt for lye over sodium laureth sulfate because the latter sounds riskier, you’ve made a bad call.

  3. tse-tse-fly says:

    And of course, apply this to hard to pronounce names and all of a sudden….

  4. Benguin says:

    I wonder if this applies to people too. Might someone be more wary of Muhammed Aashiq than Dave Simpson because of pronouncibility or more because of racial bias? Or maybe a mixture of both?

    And for the record, Aashiq is just the first name I saw on a list of male Middle Eastern names. Apparently it means “a lover, a suitor,” making the hypothetical wariness all the more ironic.

    • floraposte says:

      @Benguin: That would also depend on which names the “someone” is more familiar with, since plenty of folks are more used to Muhammed Aashiq than Dave Simpson.

      • Benguin says:

        @floraposte: True. I suppose in my mind I was thinking the general American population.

        i.e. white people.

        • FMulder says:

          @Benguin: the “general” American population? What does that make everyone else? Somehow less “generally” American?

          See that’s the problem, some folk set themselves as the “standard” (general) for what Americans (or humans) are, and everyone else who does have their skin color, ethnicity, etc., are somehow just not ‘normal.’

          How many ‘generally hard to pronounce’ names are there among polish, russian, italian, irish and essentially every other group of people?

          I wish stupidity wasn’t so common among the ‘general American population’

  5. runswithscissors says:

    In before all the smug “*I* rated Magnalroxate as more dangerous than Hnegripitrom” comments. :p

  6. corbyz says:

    [] – beware of dihydrogen monoxide !

  7. WBrink says:

    Wouldn’t a rational, self-realized person answer “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough information” to the question?

    • Benguin says:

      @WBrink: I have a feeling that wasn’t part of the test. It was more like “Here’s two words: which sounds scarier?”

      You don’t have to know what they mean for them to invoke a reaction in your head.

      • Myotheralt says:

        @Benguin: Here’s two words: which sounds scarier?

        Clown or … well, I just scared myself with that one, so the game is over.

  8. Parapraxis says:


    to paraphrase dave chappelle’s black George W. Bush skit…

    can I be real for a second?

    go ahead man, be real…

    fool tried to kill my father…

  9. Chris Walters says:

    @runswithscissors: I indeed rated Magnalroxate as more dangerous, but that’s because when I read it, I associated these words/images with it almost instantly:

    mal- prefix
    x as an icon for death
    Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty

    I couldn’t pronounce Hpe-whatever so I didn’t associate anything with it, just skipped it.

    So my choice was definitely driven by intuition, but also laziness. TAKE THAT RESEARCHERS.

    • Rectilinear Propagation says:

      @Chris Walters: Maleficent is the best Disney villain ever.

      I think it’s because most people can’t associate anything familiar with a word like Hnegripitrom that makes it seem more dangerous. You might be able to guess what Magnalroxate does, even if it’s harmful, but who knows what the heck Hnegripitrom will do to you. The unknown is scarier than the danger you do know.

  10. GreatCaesarsGhost says:

    This is ridiculous. You could have named these substances X and Y, and the results would be the same. You’re making people choose between 1 and 7, when really they want to say, “How the hell should I know?” So I say Hnegripitrom is more dangerous than Magnalroxate, the researcher says “Aha! you did that because its harder to say!” When in fact I did it because I randomly choose a rating for each so he would give me my participation payout.

    • floraposte says:

      @GreatCaesarsGhost: But if 200 people do the same thing, that’s not a random choice, even if it felt random to the people choosing.

      • orlo says:

        @floraposte: Yeah, the choice is probably being determined by the way the experiment was set up. What if they said: “One of these substances increases longevity. Choose one.” Would people pick the the difficult to pronounce one? Would that mean that they are afraid of getting older?

        • floraposte says:

          @orlo: Generally, experimenters are pretty clear about the effect of the setup and arrange things to avoid it. Here the participants were simply asked to rate the hazard level of each of ten fictional food additives, which appeared in random order. The conclusion seems reasonable, and it’s in line with other cognitive science. Basically, we don’t tend to judge the way we think we do, so this isn’t particularly surprising.

  11. Borax-Johnson says:

    The really scary thing about DHMO is how it is found in so many everyday substances, and is even allowed (and in certain cases mandated) to be in food and drink products.

    More on the toxicity and lethality of even a small quantity can be found here: []

  12. ajlei says:

    @Chris Walters: I thought it was the Magnalroxate too, specifically because I saw that x which equated “DEATH” to me.

  13. Blueskylaw says:


  14. chuck0008 says:

    Isn’t this just the same thing as what drug makers do? I can’t imagine they just make warm and fuzzy sounding names so they will be easier to sell. I think someone figured this out a while ago.

  15. guroth says:

    I chose Magnalroxate as the more dangerous because I recognized the suffix and could therefore make an educated assumption that the “ingredient” is derived from some kind of chemical synthesis.

    Hnegripitrom, in comparison, did not have any root words for me to derive possible meaning from, so I was more likely to assume that it is a more natural ingredient.

    Of course, being chemically processed or natural on its own has no substantial meaning in the case of health effects, but that is the thought process I had and in this instance, for me, familiarity was related to a higher risk, contrary to the hypothesis of the article.

  16. MeOhMy says:

    Blackwater became Xi. An interesting thought. At a glance, Xi is frighteningly unpronouncable but once the helpful flack explains to you that it’s just “zee” you realize it’s actually much easier to pronounce than Blackwater.

    Is this marketing psychology at its best?

  17. MooseOfReason says:

    Is this why people were afraid of voting for Barack Obama?

  18. CRNewsom says:

    I very much like the design of this study and the fact that the researchers didn’t attempt to make a conclusion that risky = bad.

  19. radiochief says:

    I don’t have an advanced degree in Chemistry, but I did minor in it at school. (I did take organic.)

    Magnalroxate: ‘oxate’ sounds like a functional group.
    Hnegripitrom: Sounds like an Icelandic or Norse hero.

    With the naming of chemical in the past: people often named them based on some identifiable property: quicksilver or cadaverine (it maybe -ene)… It’s flowing metal or it stinks like a rotting body…

    Or perhaps some florid description of what properties or changes it will effect on someone.

    Gimme the IUPAC nomenclature any day.

  20. Susan Rendleman Mastrodemos says:

    Not risky and not dangerous = lard, salt

  21. Psychicsword says:

    You just had to go and break it for me. Now how am I supposed to be happy with my self being manipulated.

  22. ScottRose says:

    See, I always worry about the most easily pronounced yet most vague of ingredients.

    I try to avoid buying food or drink with “Natural Flavors”. That is by far the most bullshit ingredient ever listed on anything.

  23. synergy says:

    Which is why I resent having to take a ton of “fine art” and social “science” courses to get my bachelor of science while most people don’t have to take science classes that might, you know, keep them from picking up stuff with potentially toxic ingredients. :-p