When is ‘Keeping It Simple, Stupid’ Not the Best Approach?

Adam Alter, professor of marketing and psychology at NYU, reveals the world is full of such hidden forces that shape our every thought, feeling and behaviour, without us ever realising. Understanding these cues, Alter argues, is key to smarter decision-making, more effective marketing, and better outcomes for ourselves and society.

I spent my primary and high school years in Sydney, and often my teachers told the class to ‘kiss’, or keep it simple, stupid. They were trying to tell us to stop using the word ‘utilise’ when ‘use’ would do; to stop saying ‘on the mat was perched a feline’ when ‘the cat sat on the mat’ was clearer, simpler, and easier to understand.

I’m a big supporter of this march towards plain English. It embodies some of my favorite human characteristics: unstuffiness, unpretentiousness, unabashedness. It’s also a big improvement over the way we communicated in the 1800s and 1900s. Take the classic English legal case of Davies v. Mann, decided in 1842. Justice Erskine in the Court of Exchequer handed down a judgment that represents the height of convoluted legalese. In describing the facts of the case, Justice Erskine wrote:

The declaration stated that the plaintiff theretofore, and at the time of the committing of the grievance thereinafter mentioned, to wit, on, etc., was lawfully possessed of a certain donkey, which said donkey of the plaintiff was then lawfully in a certain highway, and the defendant was then possessed of a certain waggon and certain horses drawing the same, which said waggon and horses of the defendant were then under the care, government, and direction of a certain then servant of the defendant, in and along the said highway; nevertheless the defendant, by his said servant, so carelessly, negligently, unskilfully, and improperly governed and directed his said waggon and horses, that by and through the carelessness, negligence, unskilfulness, and improper conduct of the defendant, by his said servant, the said waggon and horses of the defendant then ran and struck with great violence against the said donkey of the plaintiff, and thereby then wounded, crushed, and killed the same, etc.

Another way of expressing the facts would be to pluck just 12 words from this mess (bolded above): ‘The servant of the defendant negligently struck the donkey of the plaintiff.’ You lose some meaning, perhaps, but not enough to justify turning 12 words into 160.

New Zealanders have embraced the march towards plainer English, so much so that an organisation called WriteMark hosts an annual Plain English Awards ceremony. In 2012, for example, Annette Hamilton won the Best Plain English Sentence Transformation Award for simplifying a mangled Telecom New Zealand sentence. The original sentence told the customer, unhelpfully, that:

One of our technicians will enable the DSL port on the DSLAM at our exchange and we will send you an e-text when ADSL is active on your line.

Hamilton’s jargon-free alternative told customers only what they needed to know:

Your broadband connection is underway. We will send you a text message when it is ready for you to use.

Some academic papers are so filled with jargon that no one in the world can understand them. In March this year, a journalist reported that editors removed more than 120 fake academic articles from journals between 2008 and 2013. These articles had been peer-reviewed, which means that ‘experts’ decided they were worthy of publication. The journalist wrote her own example with the help of an online article-generator, a nonsensical postmodernist mess that sounded intelligent but meant absolutely nothing.

Not all complexity is bad, though. Humans are very sensitive to complexity in the environment around us, and often it guides us to make wise decisions. One classic example comes from the game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Contestants answer trivia questions with the ultimate goal of answering a very difficult million-dollar question. Ogi Ogas and John Carpenter were two very successful contestants on the US version of the show. Ogas is a neuroscientist and author, and Carpenter is a tax officer. They both answered 14 questions correctly, and ultimately arrived at the million-dollar question.

Ogas struggled. The host asked him the question and asked him to choose one of four multiple-choice answers:

Which of these ships was not one of the three taken over by colonists during the Boston Tea Party?

  1. Eleanor

  2. Dartmouth

  3. Beaver

  4. William

Ogas, a fan of flowery prose, described the experience on his blog:

My neurohormones whipped from black misery to shining ebullience, saturating my brain in a boiling cauldron of epinephrine and endorphins. I gaped at the azure screen in front of me as the ultimate question coalesced in hot white font …

… I immediately had an intuition that one of the ships at the Tea Party was Dartmouth. I reflected on Dartmouth, using it as a prime. I repeated the ship’s name aloud and silently to myself. Gradually, the name of another ship formed in my mind, echoing each repetition of Dartmouth: Beaver…And then, faintly, like the reflection of the moon on a midnight lake, the name of a third ship dimly waxed upon the murk of my mind: Eleanor.

… I blinked. Suddenly, I became aware of the wobble of the chair, the murmurs of the audience…Intuition? What are you thinking?! You’re risking a house! You can’t possibly know the answer to this arcane question! There’s no such thing as intuition!

… I believe I’ll walk with the money I’ve got. That’s my final answer.

Ogas decided not to answer the question, and instead left with the handsome sum of $500,000. As his blog post explains, he was sensitive to cues that betrayed his uncertainty.

Carpenter’s experience was very different. The show’s host, Regis Philbin, asked him:

  1. Lyndon Johnson
  2. Richard Nixon
  3. Jimmy Carter
  4. Gerald Ford

Just once during the show, contestants are allowed to ‘phone a friend’ for help. Carpenter decided to phone his father. No one had ever won the million dollar prize in the US in 1999, when Carpenter was on the show, so the audience waited anxiously, believing that Carpenter was unsure of the answer. His father answered the phone:

Carpenter’s Father: Hello.

Host: We’ve got your son John with us; he’s doing pretty well. He’s won a half million dollars and he’s going for a million dollars. He needs your help to get there …

Carpenter: Hi, Dad … I don’t really need your help, I just wanted to let you know that I’m gonna win the million dollars … because the U.S. president that appeared on Laugh-In is Richard Nixon. That’s my final answer.

Carpenter had known the answer as soon as he saw the question. In contrast to Ogas, who experienced all the hallmarks of mental uncertainty, Carpenter knew the answer as surely as he knew his own name.

Humans, like Ogas and Carpenter, are very sensitive to cues that signal certainty and uncertainty. In much of my research, I’ve focused on one such cue, known as disfluency. Disfluency is the experience of struggling to make sense of any mental task—pronouncing a difficult word; making sense of a complex sentence; answering a tough mental puzzle; reading a word printed in ornate font, and so on. Ogas’ experience was disfluency whereas Carpenter’s was perfectly fluent.

Fluency, like plain English, is usually desirable. Why print an essay in hard-to-read Impact font when you can print it in easy-to-read Times New Roman font? Why force your readers to work harder than necessary?

The answer is that, like Ogi Ogas, we need help recognising what we don’t know — that we need to spend a bit more time and effort making sense of the world before we respond. Nowhere is this truer than in the land of education, where I began my discussion, and where keeping it simple, stupid, is usually desirable. With Danny Oppenheimer and Nick Epley, fellow psychology professors in the United States, I explored the benefits of disfluency in a number of experiments. For example, we asked two groups of people to answer the same mental puzzle. For half of them the question was printed in easy-to-read font:

If a bat and ball cost $1.10 in total, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

For the other half, it was printed in hard-to-read font:

If a bat and ball cost $1.10 in total, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

The question is deceptively tricky. At first, almost everyone decides that the bat costs $1 and the ball 10 cents, since those two numbers add neatly to $1.10. Solved! Not so fast, because the bat only costs 90 cents more than the ball. The correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents (and the bat $1.05), but many people rest with their intuitive response and answer the question incorrectly. When we presented the question printed in the easy-to-read font, only 63% of people gave the correct response. In contrast, when we printed the question in the hard-to-read font, a more impressive 82% answered correctly. Researchers see the same pattern with other, similar questions, too. When they ask people how many animals of each type Moses took aboard his ark, 88% answer ‘2!’ when the question is printed in clear font, but only 53% give the same response when it’s printed in hard-to-read font. The answer, of course, is not ‘2’, but rather ‘Noah boarded the ark, not Moses’.

With some of his students, Oppenheimer carried this idea into the classroom. At a school in Ohio, they created fluent and disfluent versions of the course material in six courses, including English, mathematics, and chemistry. The fluent versions were printed in clear font; the disfluent versions were printed in one of several harder-to-read fonts. Lo, several weeks later, when the students took their exams, the students who studied from harder-to-read materials achieved scores that were, on average, 16% higher than the scores of their counterparts who studied from easier-to-read materials. Disfluency seemed to deepen their attention and, consequently, how much they learned.

Keeping it simple, stupid, is a valuable and valid aim, but occasionally it pays to inject brief bursts of artificial complexity into our lives, and the lives of our children. Most of the time it doesn’t hurt to pay only superficial attention to the world around us — but sometimes, if careful, systematic thinking is the only route to the right answer, keeping it simple fares more poorly than keeping it complex.

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