Easy=True: How ‘cognitive fluency’ shapes what we believe

On the surface, ‘cognitive fluency’ seems obvious.  Simply put, people prefer things that are easy to think about than ones that are hard.  What I found surprising, however, is the extent to which cognitive fluency seems to shape our beliefs.  In his article for the Boston Globe, Drake Bennett writes:

Because it shapes our thinking in so many ways, fluency is implicated in decisions about everything from the products we buy to the people we find attractive to the candidates we vote for – in short, in any situation where we weigh information. It’s a key part of the puzzle of how feelings like attraction and belief and suspicion work, and what researchers are learning about fluency has ramifications for anyone interested in eliciting those emotions.”

Understanding how cognitive fluency shapes our beliefs and opinions has important implications for both music pedagogy. For one example, consider the private music teacher instructing students in how to perform a series of complicated physical actions, like playing the piano, and on top of that to think musically and creatively.  Each step needs to be broken down into simply activities and learned one at a time.  Giving the student too much information at once will make it too difficult to digest at once.  It’s no wonder that pedagogical methods that suggest to simply think musically and let the body figure itself out are so popular.

There are also parallels between cognitive fluency and things such as musical appreciation.

“More recent work suggests that people assign all sorts of specific characteristics to things that feel familiar. Like beauty. Psychologists have identified what they call the “beauty-in-averageness” effect – when asked to identify the most attractive example of something, people tend to choose the most prototypical option. For example, when asked to identify the most appealing of a group of human faces, people choose the one that is a composite of all the others. And it’s not just faces: Studies have found a similar tendency when people are asked to identify what makes for an attractive dog or car or watch. Some psychologists suggest that much of what we perceive as beauty is just the fact that the most prototypical faces and dogs and watches are the easiest to process, because they share the most with all the other faces and dogs and watches that we’ve seen and stored in our perceptual inventory.”

I’ve noticed that for a lot of the non-musician students I have in music appreciation-type classes are definitely biased towards music that is familiar.  I’ve always believed that helping the students to understand the music better would lead to appreciation, and it seems to.  On the other hand, perhaps it’s simply more exposure to the music, making it seem more familiar, is really what is helping them to enjoy the music.  Would the goal of music appreciation be served just as well if I simply exposed the non-musicians to different music and left out all the explanation?

Winkielman doesn’t claim that beauty is entirely explained by fluency, but he argues that the effect is powerful, all the more so because we’re unaware of it. Indeed, the power of the effect, combined with the ease with which psychologists can fool people into mistaking the sensation of fluency for actual familiarity, helps explain the current popularity of research into the phenomenon.”

The other side of this discussion is what the article refers to as “disfluency.”  The article mentions a study where the same questionnaire was presented in two different fonts, one that was easy to read and one that was difficult.  The results found that subjects answered the questionnaire more honestly with the easy to read font.  What is interesting about disfluency is how sometimes this cognitive bias can be used for positive effect.

“Along with Lawrence Sanna of the University of North Carolina, Schwarz has looked at fluency and self-confidence. The two found that, if the goal was to boost college students’ confidence before an exam, getting them to list a few reasons why they were going to succeed was more effective than getting them to list many reasons. Because it was harder, the students who were asked to think of more ways to succeed were actually less confident, even though they ended up with longer lists.

And Schwarz and Sanna found a converse effect when they asked students to think of reasons they would not do well: Students asked to come up with a longer list of reasons they would fail reported feeling more confident than those asked for a shorter list. Indeed, they reported feeling as confident as the students who had been asked to come up with the short list of ways to succeed – by the authors’ calculation, thinking of 12 ways to fail had the same effect as thinking of three ways to succeed.”

I can see how I might make use of this effect with one of my student ensembles.  For example, the rehearsal or lesson following a student performance I usually have a brief discussion about how the performance went.  I always start with the positive questions (what went well) and then move towards areas for improvement (what could we do better next time).  Frequently I try to end the discussion with something positive before we move on to our next project.  I always try to minimize the negative discussion in order to emphasize the success, but perhaps what I need to be doing is do a little more examination about what needs improvement.  The gist of this idea is that if you make it hard to come up with what needs improvement the students will find dwelling on the negative challenging.  It’s difficult to come up with so many things that need improvement, but easy to list just a few things that went well.  This leaves the students with an overall positive impression, in spite of spending more time on the negative than the positive.

It’s interesting to read about cognitive fluency.  I will have to look further into this and see if anyone has already conducted some research about it focusing primarily on music.

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