A Conversation with
Adam Alter [2.25.13]
Introduction by:
Adam Alter

We've shown that disfluency leads you to think more deeply, as I mentioned earlier, that it forms a cognitive roadblock, and then you think more deeply, and you work through the information more comprehensively. But the other thing it does is it allows you to depart more from reality, from the reality you're at now. 


Adam Alter is interested in examining the concrete ways in which we are affected by subtle cues, such as symbols, culture, and colors. Why are Westerners easily fooled by the Müller-Lyer illusion of two lines with different arrows at their ends, while Bushmen from southern Africa are not? Why do certain colors have a calming effect on the intoxicated? Why is it that people with easy-to-pronounce names get ahead in life?

In this conversation, we get an overview of Alter's current line of work on how we experience fluent and disfluent information. Fluency implies that information comes at a very low cost, often because it is already familiar to us in some similar form. Disfluency occurs when information is costly–perhaps it takes a lot of effort to understand a concept, or a name is unfamiliar and therefore difficult to say. His work has interesting implications in the realms of market forces (stocks with pronounceable ticker codes tend to do better when they first enter the market than those that don't, for instance) and globalization, and is highly relevant in a world where cultures continue to meet and to merge.

Jennifer Jacquet

ADAM ALTER is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Stern School of Business, NYU. He is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. Adam Alter's Edge Bio Page 

[33.48 minutes]

[This conversation with Adam Alter was conducted in New York City by Edge Editor-at-Large, Jennifer Jacquet.]


From the beginning of psychology, psychologists have been interested in two aspects of thinking. They've been interested in a lot of aspects, but one of the ways of breaking thinking down is into these two. The first is to look at the content of our thoughts or our cognitions. What is the stuff that we're thinking about, and that goes all the way back to the 1800s, with the introspectionists; they were interested in looking at what people were actually thinking about when they were introspecting. That's carried right through psychology from the 1800s to today.

Another aspect that's only been studied much more recently, which has formed the basis for a lot of my research now, is to look at not what people are thinking, but how that experience is for them. What is it like to think about these things? That topic is known as meta-cognition, and it's basically the idea that when we have any thoughts, not only do we have those thoughts, but there's an overlaid experience of how it feels to have those thoughts. Is it easy to generate those thoughts? Is it difficult to process them? Do we feel like we understand what we're thinking about well? Do we think we understand it poorly? I'll give you a couple of examples of this.

The basic idea here is that when you have a thought, any thought, it falls along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. A fluent thought is one that feels subjectively easy to have. When you speak English and you come across a common English name, like John, or Tom, or Ted, it's very, very easy to process that name. There's no difficulty in reading the name and in making sense of the name.

At the other end of the spectrum you might come across a foreign name or a novel name that you've never seen before or perhaps a name that you've seen before, but spelled very differently. In that case it's going to be much more difficult to process the name. Then it will be disfluent or subjectively difficult to process. It will feel more difficult to process. There's not only the content, what the name happens to be, and what it's like to store that information, but also what it's like to have the thoughts of processing the name, of making sense of the name.

This is a topic that I've been very interested in, and I've been interested in the concept of fluency and how that might affect a whole lot of different judgments that we make, and the way we process the world. The most basic effects in fluency research are pretty straightforward, and the idea is that when something is fluent, you feel differently about it from how you would feel if it were more difficult to process. I'll give you a few examples from my own research.

The first is to look at how people feel about others. When you meet someone for the first time, if they're a stranger, does the ease with which you can pronounce their name influence how you feel about them? We've shown, for example, in some studies that if you look at lawyers who join law firms they tend to ascend up the legal hierarchy much more quickly when their names are easy to pronounce or process. That's independent of a whole lot of other factors, like how foreign the name is. Even if you look at American male names, you'll find that the ones that are easier to pronounce, there tends to be a relationship where they tend to progress up the hierarchy more quickly.

There are a lot of reasons why that might be. The basic idea is that people feel more positive about stuff that's easy to process. When you meet someone whose name you can pronounce easily, you feel a little bit more positive about that person. There's a halo. Another interpretation that's possible is that when you are trying to decide among a couple of different people who you’ll work with on a team, you just generally prefer the person whose name is easy to pronounce. That ends up being a tiebreaker for you. So that's one effect.

We've also looked at the effect of this fluency phenomenon on stocks in the stock market, and we've shown, for example, that when a stock first comes out on the market, people don't really know what to make of that stock. But if you look at the performance of stock over the first day or week after it's come out on the market, you can predict its performance pretty well by looking at how easy it is to pronounce its name. And, again, that's controlling for all sorts of other factors like which industry the stock is from, the size of the company. It seems that there's a halo that stocks acquire when the company name is easy to pronounce. We have also shown the same effect when you look at the ticker codes of the stock. Stocks get assigned a three- or four-letter, or sometimes one- or two-letter ticker code, and according to the rules of English, some of those just happen to be pronounceable and some of them happen not to be pronounceable. If you look at the codes that are pronounceable, like BRI would be Bri, it's not an English word, but it's pronounceable, whereas BRK would be unpronounceable according to the rules of English grammar. The stocks that are pronounceable tend to do better when they first enter the market.

We've shown that effect in a whole lot of other different domains as well. We've looked at morality. If you present the same information in a format that's difficult to read, either because the font that you've chosen is complex, or because you put the font against a background that isn't very highly contrasting, or contrasted against that font, you find that people think that that moral transgression they're reading is worse. By struggling to read the transgression, they basically assume that the transgression is worse. Somehow that ends up affecting or coloring how they feel about the transgression. If it's much easier to process, if they can read it more easily, they tend to feel not quite as negative about the transgression. So this fluency principle has a whole lot of direct influences. When something is fluent, we seem to like it more. We like people more. We feel more positively about them. We judge their moral transgression more positively. We like the financial stocks more or think they'll be more valuable. We've shown the same effect, and other researchers have shown the same effect, in other domains as well. That's the very beginning of fluency research. It's pretty simple stuff.

But we delved a little bit deeper, and what we've been interested in for maybe the last four or five years is looking at whether … you're not just changing the direct relationship between what it feels like to process something and then the judgments you form, but also whether that experience of processing it either fluently or disfluently, with ease or with difficulty, ends up changing the cognitive operations that you perform on the target. What I mean by that is when something is difficult, that should act as a meta-cognitive alarm or a signal that you don't understand it as well as you perhaps should. We've given people a number of different tasks.

There's a famous task called the Cognitive Reflection Test, and this test has three different questions, and each of the questions lures you into giving the wrong response, because the intuitive response is actually incorrect. An example of this is, “When you add the cost of a bat and a ball together the sum of those two is worth $1.10, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?” It's a very simple question. Anyone with basic arithmetic skills can answer it.

What happens is, for some reason the first and intuitive response is that, I guess the bat must be $1, the ball must be 10 cents. That adds to $1.10. That seems about right. But, of course, the difference between $1 and 10 cents is 90 cents, not $1. The correct answer is that the bat is worth $1.05, the ball is worth 5 cents. They add to $1.10, and the difference between them is $1. And people generally struggle with these questions. They're lured in. They give their intuitive response, and they're incorrect.

But if you present the questions in a font that's a little bit more difficult to read, we found that you can increase their accuracy pretty dramatically. They make fewer of those intuitive responses. They take the time to reconsider their initial responses. They assume that the task is more difficult. They have a bit less confidence in their initial response, and so they tend to do a little bit better at the task. The same is true when you ask them to complete syllogism questions, logical syllogisms, any questions that ask you to think more deeply about a particular topic, where thinking more deeply will lead you to the right answer more often. We've shown that with disfluency people are more likely to do that. We have even found the same effect in a number of other domains as well.

When you look at persuasion, people can either process the information very deeply. If you give them a review of a new MP3 player or a new phone, they can either process that very superficially by just looking at which brand of phone we're talking about, or MP3 player, and some other superficial cues that they might get. For example, is the person who's telling them this information, does this person seem like they know what they're talking about.

Or they can process the content of the review, which takes a little bit more effort. We've shown, again, when the review is a little bit more disfluent, people pay more attention to the content. They're willing to take the time to process it more deeply before they form a judgment.

You can influence the way people process information by presenting it in a disfluent format, making it more difficult to read or process. We've shown the same thing with a different dimension, so another thing that happens when something is disfluent is it seems psychologically more remote from you. It feels farther away from you.

If you imagine trying to remember something, if it feels more difficult to remember you'll assume that it happened longer ago, that it's further from where you are today. The same thing is true if you're looking at something, and you're trying to judge its physical distance. If it's fuzzy or difficult to perceive, you might assume that it's farther away.

We've shown that people make these distance judgments based on how easy it is to process the information. When they see something is farther away they tend to focus on its more global aspects. If you ask someone, written more disfluently, to describe New York City, they'll give a much more global, abstract description of New York City. Instead of talking about things like the boroughs and how many people there are, they might say something like “it's a playground for the rich and famous,” something much more abstract that focuses on a higher or global level, rather than focusing on the narrow minutiae or the concrete aspects of the city. We've shown these effects in a whole lot of different domains.

Where we're going with this research now is it's got a number of potential applications. One thing that tends to happen, which we've shown in some other research, is when something feels fluent you assume you understand it really well, and that can be a trap, as we saw in that Cognitive Reflection Test, the bat and the ball question.

There's a phenomenon known as the illusion of explanatory depth, and the idea is there are certain things that we assume, certain mechanical processes, that we assume we understand much better than we do. If you ask someone how well can you explain on a scale from one—not very well—to ten—very well—how a bicycle works, and we all know what a bicycle is. We've all used a bicycle. We've ridden bicycles, and we have a basic sense of what the components of a bicycle are. There are a couple of wheels, pedals, handlebars, and people will say with great confidence, between an eight and a ten out of ten, I know pretty well how to describe how a bicycle works. But then if you press them, and you say, "Okay. Well, what can you tell me about how a bicycle works?" It turns out that they very, very quickly realize that they're not actually sure how the bicycle works. They know to a point. They know about these different components, but not really how they interact. That happens with a whole lot of mechanical processes, and some natural ones as well.

If you ask people about how an earthquake occurs, everyone knows there's something to do with plates, and they move against one another, and that there's some tension that's released in the form of an earthquake, but they don't, when pressed, know that much about why this happens. This illusion of explanatory depth is pretty pervasive, and one reason we think this happens is because people ask themselves the wrong question, and that metacognitive experience that you get from asking the question at the wrong level gives you the sense that you understand the question better than you do.

When I say, "How well can you explain how a bicycle works," instead of thinking, “Do I know how the train and how the pedals work together?” you ask yourself a different question, which comes very easily. How familiar is a bicycle? How much do I know about it? Can I name the parts of the bicycle? Have I ridden a bicycle before? Those answers give you the sense that you understand the true question better than you actually do. Again, fluency is sort of the lure there. It's so easy to generate some knowledge about a bicycle that you end up thinking that you understand how it actually functions better than you do. That's another application of fluency, and it shows another domain where fluency can be dangerous, and where disfluency is a better guide to how much we actually know.

With computers, and really with any topic what you need is to have that superficial knowledge that you consult. Once you consult that superficial knowledge, and you have a sense that you know something about the topic, that's when you get the illusion of explanatory depth. You don't get it when you have absolutely no idea or when the process is opaque.

I have no idea how a computer works really. I don't know that much about it. Therefore, I'm unlikely to say, yes, I understand it, because I don't have any real superficial knowledge that I can hang my hat on. Whereas, when I'm asked about a bicycle, or how a toilet flush works, or how a sewing machine works, I know enough about those processes, there's enough concrete stuff there for me to latch onto to feel that sense that I understand how it works. I'm unlikely to feel the same thing about a process that's either opaque or technical.

There might be a case there where you might get an illusion of explanatory shallowness, which is the reverse. It's also possible that because of that, it seems like a domain that's obscure, that is maybe too technical for you to know anything about, you'll have the sense that you know absolutely nothing about it. That's what happened with me when you asked me about a computer. It seems arcane, and it seems like something that's a bit remote from what I'm used to talking about. There may then be an illusion of explanatory shallowness, where once you press me, I actually know more than I thought I knew. That's possible with cases like computers or digital processes, and things that aren't so concrete. You might get the reverse effect. It's something that we've looked for in the lab and we haven't been able to find, but you may have just hit on one case where that might happen.

Staying on the illusion of explanatory depth, one of the applications there is in politics. When you ask people how well they understand what distinguishes two candidates, this particularly happens when you're dealing at the primary level before the main election, you'll find that people say, "I understand the difference between the candidates pretty well." They have this sense that they know the candidates, they know a little bit about them, and when you ask, "Okay. Can you explain the differences between the candidates to me," that leads them to a point where they can't do that. They're surprised by how little they actually know, and how little they know that will distinguish the candidates. That's interesting and I think quite important, because democracy rests on the idea that we're able to express our preferences. If your preferences that you're expressing aren't well grounded, and they don't actually represent what you truly want, then the whole thing breaks down.

That's true with a lot of political decision making. People get to the point where they're absolutely sure about one candidate. The candidate represents exactly what they want and what they hoped for, but when you press them, they actually have no idea, and they end up making the decision because the candidate looks more competent—there's a lot of research showing that—or the candidate looks more intelligent, or he's just more likeable, but those features don't predict policy decisions necessarily, and so they end up making decisions based on the wrong sorts of information.

Socially, this is very important as well. When you feel disfluency, it makes you feel a distance from the target. We've shown this effect with lawyers, that lawyers are just judged more harshly. We've shown the effect with politicians as well. If you say to someone, "Here are two politicians. How would you judge these two," you often find that you get more votes for having the simpler name. This might explain, to a large extent, prejudice and stereotyping. A lot of what you find there is grounded in disfluency, that there's a form of social disfluency when you feel that something is foreign, or different, or unfamiliar. When it's harder to process or make sense of that person or that target, you end up feeling more negative about them, and that predicts quite a few social dilemmas, and some of the prejudice could be grounded in the sense of disfluency, because it leads to a lower evaluation.

Disfluency is critical to communication. One very interesting phenomenon that you find is when people send emails to one another, there's an assumption that sarcasm carries through, and that if you're being sarcastic that other people will understand what you're saying. But, of course, when you receive an email, all of the cues that the person imagines are being transferred aren't being transferred. It's a much more narrow band of information than people think they're transferring. Sarcasm ends up working very well in person, but much more poorly across email, or over text messages, or electronically, or otherwise. It doesn't work quite as well as it does in person.

Another way of showing this effect is when you ask people to clap Happy Birthday. If you clap the rhythm of Happy Birthday and then ask people to do that in front of someone who doesn't know that that's what they're clapping, you say to them, "How likely do you think it is that this person knows that what you're clapping is Happy Birthday?" People, as they're clapping Happy Birthday, in their heads, they're humming it to themselves, and so they imagine the other person has a lot of that information, that it's totally obvious, and it turns out not to be. Very few people, when they hear you clapping Happy Birthday, think Happy Birthday. They think of all sorts of other songs. They rattle through, trying to come up with as many options as possible. Some of them get the right answer, but it's a lot more difficult for the receiver to make sense of that information.

A lot of that is about the discrepancy in fluency for you and for the other person. As I'm clapping Happy Birthday, it's really, really fluent for me that that's Happy Birthday. It feels easy to simulate Happy Birthday in my head. I can hear it happening, and I transfer that over and assume that that 's going to be the case for the other person, whereas for that person, it’s actually a very difficult task. There's a lot of disfluency there. They have to wrack their minds, trying to go through all the alternative songs that it could be. A lot of miscommunication is predicted by this stuff.

A fourth domain is, one of the big problems now, is that people disclose information too readily. They do this especially on the internet. We're not very well designed to assess how trustworthy sources are over the internet, because a lot of the cues that humans have learned to use over the years to judge trustworthiness are completely absent when we're talking about online interactions. I might see the VeriSign logo, which suggests that I should share my credit card, but I also don't really know where else that information is going. We're very willing to share this sort of information on the internet, and I think disfluency is one cue that might slow us down, and disfluency in a number of experiments is being shown to lead to a greater perception of risk.

There are some terrific experiments showing, for example, that if you ask people about how risky a ride is at an amusement park, if the ride has a very simple name, and it's easy to pronounce, people assume that it's not a very dangerous ride. It's not very risky. If you give them a ride that's much more disfluent, that's got a very complex name, they then think the ride is much more dangerous. They did the same thing with additives for food. They assume that the more complicated and convoluted the additive, and the harder it is to pronounce the additive's name, the more dangerous the additive will probably be.

We've shown the same thing looking at how much people are willing to disclose on the internet. We found a website called Grouphug.us, which was one of the first confessions websites on the web. It basically solicits anonymous confessions. The site is now defunct, but until last year, it had been around for about a dozen years, and they had thousands and thousands of confessions. It turns out the original format of the site was very, very hard to process. It was very disfluent. For whatever reason, the webmaster had designed it that way. What you had was these black text confessions against a dark gray background, and it was very, very hard to read them. We wondered whether if he changed his format, if he made it more fluent, whether he would encourage more revealing confessions, whether people would feel that now being able to process all the information on the site more easily they didn't perceive quite the same risk in making those confessions. That's what we found. In the middle of 2008 he decided to change the format, and now the background, instead of being this gray shade that was very similar to the black text, he changed the background to white, and all of a sudden it was much easier to read the information on the site.

We gathered about 500 confessions either side of that change. We found that the confessions after that change were much more revealing. People were, when it was more fluent, willing to disclose much more revealing information. The gravity of the confessions went up. They were much more revealing. Often they revealed crimes and major things that people might not otherwise reveal. A lot of the confessions that people were revealing when the site was disfluent were peccadilloes. They were minor issues. They were revealing really minor trivial things. We have some evidence that disfluency might mitigate some of those issues with over-sharing on the internet, which is one of the major social problems that we're facing today, among many others.

There are a lot of reasons why people prefer things that are fluent. One is purely based on the fact that we prefer economy. We are cognitive misers. We don't like to process information deeply, and we generally just feel more positive about things that we don't have to work too hard at understanding. That's just a general principle.

Another possible reason is that this is more based on adaptation and evolution. One idea is that things that are familiar to us, haven't eaten us yet, haven't killed us yet, have not been dangerous to us before now, and so familiarity is a sign that we can trust them, that they're reliable, that they're not likely to harm us. That leads people to feel more positive about stimuli that are more fluent, because they feel more familiar.

There is a very strong relationship between familiarity and fluency. We ran a study where we gave people dollar bills, and half of them had a real dollar bill. The other half had a dollar bill that we had very slightly changed. We Photoshopped, for example, George Washington's head so it faced the opposite way. It was almost identical to the real dollar bill, but by tweaking it slightly we made it slightly less familiar, and they struggled just a little bit more to process that dollar bill. There's a link between familiarity and fluency. People also assume that something is familiar to the extent that it's fluent. Familiarity is a cue that something is safe and is not going to harm us, and fluency leads us to like those things more.

With the dollar bill study, we weren't actually measuring how easy it was for them to process the bill. There have been some other studies where people have looked at how long it takes you to process or make sense of the information. We didn't actually do that in that case. In that study we were interested in looking at whether they thought they could purchase as much with the bill. What we found is when you give them the bill that's been slightly altered, they think they can't purchase quite as much with it. If you say to them, "How many M&Ms can you purchase with this dollar bill," they'll give you a higher number when it's the real bill, and they'll also do that when it's a dollar bill versus a more obscure form of currency, like a dollar coin, or if you give them two $1bills, they think they can buy more with those two $1 bills than they can with a single $2 bill, the Jefferson $2 bill, which is much rarer. It's legal tender, but it's just more rare, and you find that people think they can purchase more with the two $1 bills than with the single $2 bill. That effect is also stronger to the extent that they are unfamiliar with the Jefferson bill. It goes away completely when they're very familiar with the Jefferson bill, but when they haven't seen it as many times, you get this very strong effect that they think that the Jefferson bill is less valuable, can purchase less than two $1 bills.

Another problem is in education. Teachers: one of the ways they fail, obviously, is to assume that their students know more than they actually know. There's a curse of knowledge there. Knowledge curses them and puts them in a position where because it's very easy for a teacher to themselves do the things that they're trying to teach, you end up getting this effect where they end up being less effective because they aren't good at introspecting what these other people are able to do, because it's just too fluent for them, and they assume that that fluency will carry over to the other person 

Another interesting thing is happening at the moment, when we talk about the role of fluency in society. Disfluency is very important, and there are a lot of metaphors for this. You can think of disfluency or chronic disfluency as leading you to become stronger as though you're working a muscle. I remember in Australia when I was studying law, I met a lot of high court judges. Some of them were well into their nineties, and because they'd continued to engage in topics and types of thinking that were difficult and that required a lot of effort, they were just as sharp as many people who were a lot younger.

Because it is like a muscle, this ability to think about difficult and complex topics, it's important that we get those opportunities to think that way. Going from 90 year olds all the way down to children, people who were born in the eighties, perhaps even the mid-eighties and early nineties, may have been the last generation to have to do certain things in their heads without the help of computers, and iPhones, and iPads. I used to remember lots of phone numbers. That's just not something I do any more, and my ability to remember phone numbers or numbers now has probably declined. That muscle that came from the difficult task, the disfluent task of remembering those numbers, has now withered to some extent, because I don't have to do it any more. I probably know a total of two numbers, and yet, as a five year old, I probably knew 10, or 20, or 30 numbers.

There are a lot of tasks. That's obviously not the only one. You've got calculations, simple calculation. We do very little arithmetic now. We pick up our iPhones. We hit the calculator button, and we do that instantly without having to think about it. That's another muscle, cognitive muscle that's withering a little bit.

For me, these muscles have withered because I'm not using them as much, but there are kids now who have been born who may never ever get to exercise those muscles. They don't have a change to atrophy because they were never built up in the first place. The hardship of doing things like arithmetic, and remembering numbers, and having to be creative because you have to devise your own fun, because there isn't something there to give you fun. You see these kids on iPads from very, very early ages where all stimulation comes from the outside and they never really have to generate their own fun or interest.

Never having experienced that sort of cognitive disfluency in those domains means that you're not inoculated against future versions of difficulty. It's very important that people struggle a little bit with tasks early on, because not only are they learning the tasks by doing them, but in a global high-level sense, the act of persevering through that difficulty, and of learning what it feels like to struggle with these things, to deal with the difficulty, makes you better at dealing with future examples of it when you're really faced with many more difficult tasks.

As a kid it was hard for me to remember numbers, and it was hard for me to learn the alphabet, but by going through that experience, that difficulty then made it easier for me to then deal with more difficult experiences later on, when I studied more difficult math, and when I studied more difficult psychology, and other things that I was studying. Those early experiences of difficulty are very important because they prepare you for later experiences.

By not having that inoculation early on, of having experienced some difficulty earlier on, we're less prepared for major difficulties later on. There's a chance, (and this is conjecture, there's not a lot of research on it, or it's something I'm looking at a little bit now) that to some extent people without that inoculation are generally becoming more poorly prepared for difficulty later on.

When you're faced with a cognitive challenge, part of dealing with a cognitive challenge is with the subject matter. How much do I know about this issue? Have I had experience in the issue before? Another part of it is knowing what it means to struggle, to have difficulty, to deal with a cognitive problem that you haven't faced before, and how to work through it. That meta-sense, that metacognitive difficulty, or the meta-difficulty that is laid over that experience is something that you have to learn, and not only learn, but perhaps experience over and over again so that you become better at it. There's less and less of that now, or at least certain kinds of tasks now are not present, and so we don't have those same experiences that we once had, and we're not being as well prepared.

Part of the point is that you can Google things, and that's great. A lot of things you just don't have to do. It's not about the importance of remembering phone numbers. I'm not suggesting that you'll end up in the wilderness one day and you'll need to remember these phone numbers, and so you're in trouble. It's more about the carryover of what it was like to remember those numbers and how that influences your ability to reason through other tasks that have nothing to do with Google, where Google can't help you. Novel reasoning tasks. Not just fact-based things like Google, but say you're in a really difficult situation, and you need to be creative to work your way out of the situation, and it can be a survival-based situation. It can be a novel moral problem that you've never encountered before. Part of being able to reason through these things is knowing how and being motivated to deal with the issue to work through it, to the point where you come up with a decent solution.

Having gone through those more difficult experiences earlier on prepares you for this new experience, where it's possibly more important. There is no way out. You really need to reason your way through it, and you're going to be better equipped to do that if you had to do it in the past. It's the carryover of that skill to completely new domains that we are losing.

This is part of the lure of it, that there's nothing better than having all this stuff automotized. There are now services that allow you to contact people on the other side of the world and ask them to do ten tasks for you, and they're probably unpleasant tasks, and I can totally understand why people want to delegate those tasks. There's no deep benefit in adding up three, and five, and seven, and four. It doesn't actually do anything for me in the long run, and I can understand why people think that this stuff is better delegated either to a calculator or to some other person. It probably in some ways makes their lives better, but at the same time it's undermining their ability to do other things that aren't directly related, but end up tapping into the same maybe perseverance-based skill, or there's probably a general skill involved in dealing with novel problems, and you probably get better at that over time. The less you have those opportunities, the less you'll be prepared to tackle new ones.        

Discipline is a part of it and I don't think it's a trivial part of it. That's where part of the muscle analogy comes in there. The discipline is what strengthens you. You need to be disciplined, and you learn to become disciplined over time. There's also something more content-based, or process-based, about it. You've got to know how do I tackle this. What is the scaffold that I use to tackle a completely new mental problem, and that comes from having tackled other problems in the past.

Not only do you get better at the individual things that you're working on. I get better at arithmetic by doing more problems, or I get better at computer programming by trying to program new things that I've never had to program before. That's all true, but if you come up against a completely novel task, you can be better at even those first few steps if in the past you've had to learn how to computer program and how to add up different numbers. That early process, that very beginning part, where you're learning how to even tackle the problem is very important, and that carries over across all sorts of different situations. There is that process-based part, and then there's also discipline, which is not trivial, but it's a separate issue as well.

Another thing I've been looking at is how people become energized to act in a particular way, either to do something good for themselves, like losing weight or starting an exercise program, or even buying something. What makes them want to buy something? The first step in all of that is always going to be imagination and thinking about what the consequences of doing that action will be. You either imagine losing weight and how nice that will be, or you imagine being more fit and how nice that will be, or you imagine being healthier, or you imagine how happy you'll be when you buy something, whether or not that's true.

We've shown that disfluency leads you to think more deeply, as I mentioned earlier, that it forms a cognitive roadblock, and then you think more deeply, and you work through the information more comprehensively. But the other thing it does is it allows you to depart more from reality, from the reality you're at now. If I'm thinking about whether I want to start a new exercise program, and I want to know what it's going to be like to feel more fit, that's a departure from the current reality. We've shown some evidence that when people experience disfluency, when you give the prompt in a font, and you say to them, "Think about what it would be like to be fit and to have done a lot of exercise," if you give that prompt in a font that's very difficult to read, in a disfluent font, people tend to think longer about the task, they think more deeply about it, they depart more from reality, and then later on they actually say that they're going to be more willing to do this sort of exercise, and so they become more committed.

We started to get some data to see whether phrasing the whole experience disfluently will lead people to be more committed, to think more deeply and more fully about what it will be like to reach their goal. That's another social implication that disfluency, by leading you to think more deeply and by enriching your fantasies about what it would be like to accomplish what it is you're trying to accomplish, might encourage you to make these steps more energetically and to be better prepared for them.