by Mark Travers, PhD
Psychological science has come a long way since the days of Freud, Pavlov, and Skinner. Over the next few weeks, I’m highlighting three of its newest and most promising ideas and how they are influencing the way we understand consumer behavior. The first idea we’ll examine is fluency.
To understand what fluency is, try this simple thought experiment. Imagine looking at two restaurant menus. The first menu is your typical Chinese restaurant menu. It is printed horizontally on a three-fold, 8×12 piece of paper. There are thirty or so options per fold, and each menu item is printed in tiny black font. Not the easiest thing to decipher, right? Next, imagine looking at Chipotle’s menu board. You’ll notice big white letters on a burnt sienna background. You’ll find six or so options per menu board, and a menu that is easily and intuitively read from left to right. Which menu do you think makes for a better customer experience? Almost all of us would agree that the Chipotle menu takes the cake. But why? The emerging idea of fluency may hold the answer.
Psychological fluency, simply put, refers to the ease or difficulty with which we process information. Psychologically fluent information is information that is easy for our brains to process, like the Chipotle menu board. Psychologically disfluent information, on the other hand, is information that is cumbersome for our brains to digest, like the Chinese restaurant menu. Research shows that people have an immediate, positive emotional response to information when it is presented in a fluent manner—while disfluent information has the opposite effect, causing people to react negatively to the stimulus even if they can’t quite articulate why. Importantly, these immediate reactions can bleed into our global evaluations of products, brands, and companies. For example, your liking of Chipotle may very well be a function of the ease with which you made your order as it is about the taste of the food.
Fluency has been shown to influence a wide range of judgment and choice phenomena. Easy to process information, for example, is judged to be more likable (Zajonc, 1968), to contain more truth (Reber and Schwarz, 1999), to be less criticized (Alter et al., 2007), and to be more attractive (Winkielman et al., 2006). And what company wouldn’t want to be viewed by consumers as more likeable, truthful, and attractive? From this perspective, it is not hard to understand why fluency matters, or at least should matter, to marketers. Indeed, there is growing emphasis placed on creating psychologically fluent consumer experiences. Aside from Chipotle, McDonald’s is another company that has played around with condensing menus to improve customer experience. And companies across a range of business sectors are seeing the value in streamlining processes to create superior customer experiences—a trend that is reflected in the burgeoning field of user experience (UX) research.
For a real-world look at the effect psychological fluency can have on a company’s earnings, consider a clever study conducted by researchers in 2006. They tracked the initial public offering (IPO) performance of companies with fluent stock ticker symbols (e.g., PIL, SEA) versus disfluent symbols (e.g., RXZ, QPSC). Remarkably, they found that fluent stocks outperformed disfluent stocks in the short-term—presumably because investors felt more positive and confident about the stocks with easily processed ticker names (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2006).
All of this is to say that fluency matters—and it matters at every stage of the customer experience. From brand logos, to storefront designs, to payment protocols and beyond, companies are increasingly seeing the bottom-line benefits of creating fluent consumer experiences.
Check back soon to see how emotion is influencing the way we understand consumer behavior!
As a member of the Decision Science team at Burke, Inc., Mark Travers helps clients across a range of business sectors discover data-driven consumer insights. Mark has served on the editorial staff of the journal Motivation and Emotion and has also served as an ad-hoc reviewer for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Alter, A. L., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluency. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 9369-9372.
Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., Epley, N., & Eyre, R. N. (2007). Overcoming intuition: Metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 569-576.
Reber, R., & Schwarz, N. (1999). Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 338-342.
Winkielman, P., Halberstadt, J., Fazendeiro, T., & Catty, S. (2006). Prototypes are attractive because they are easy on the mind. Psychological Science, 17, 799-806.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1-27.