Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Typeface Value: Odd Fonts Reduce Bias

• September 11, 2012 • 9:36 AM

Reading about an issue in a difficult-to-decipher font forces us to slow down and actually consider a writer’s arguments, rather than dismissing them instantaneously.

It’s fair to say this year’s election campaign hasn’t engendered much deep thinking or soul searching. We have strong views on the issues of the day, they reflect the positions of our party, and we’re sticking with them.

This kind of rigidity is problematic, not least because it makes compromise so difficult. But newly published research describes a simple way individuals—perhaps even politicians—can be steered away from knee-jerk attitudes, at least long enough to thoughtfully consider the merits of a particular plan:

Print the proposal in a frustrating font.

In two experiments, people’s attitudes became less polarized if they read a short article in a difficult-to-decipher font. The lack of ease apparently forced them to slow down and use more brain power to understand the text. This, in turn, increased the likelihood that they would respond to the material with an open mind.

“These findings suggest a simple and promising tool for persuasion, and for overcoming biases that can often distort reason,” writes Ivan Hernandez, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He argues making a written statement more visually challenging can “offer an opportunity for better judgment and discourse between opposing positions.”

Hernandez’s first experiment, conducted with colleague Jesse Lee Preston, featured 133 undergraduates. Participants began by filling out a questionnaire in which they listed their political affiliation on a seven-point scale (from strongly liberal to strongly conservative). They then read a short article in favor of capital punishment.

Half read the piece in a standard 12-point Times New Roman font. The other half read it in “a light gray, bold and italicized Haettenschweiler font,” which previous research has found to be difficult to process.

Afterwards, all answered six questions related to the article, including “How intelligent do you consider the argument?” and “How much do you believe the facts that were (presented)?” They answered each on a five-point scale, from “not at all” to “extremely.”

Not surprisingly, when they read the article in high-fluency form, liberals generally rejected the pro-capital punishment argument, while conservatives tended to support it. When the statement was difficult to read, however, there was no significant relationship between ideology and agreement (or disagreement).

“When a political issue was presented fluently, conservatives and liberals were highly polarized in their judgment, consistent with their prior attitudes,” Hernandez writes. “But this confirmatory pattern was reduced when the arguments were presented (in hard-to-read form).”

Hernandez and Preston repeated this experiment with a larger group and on a nonpolitical issue. An online panel of 398 people read about a man charged with a robbery. Half were biased positively—the man was described to them in glowing terms—while the others were biased negatively, learning that he was cold, critical, and difficult to deal with.

All then read an objective description of the facts of the case. Half did so in a 16-point Times New Roman font; the others did so using a 12-point Times New Roman font that had been photocopied three times “on the lowest contrast setting, until the text was significantly degraded, but still readable.”

Afterwards, all rendered a verdict. In a clear demonstration of bias, participants predisposed to dislike him were more likely to declare him guilty—if they had read the about the case in the easily comprehensible font. This effect disappeared for those who had read the description in the font that was difficult to make out.

Once again, a lack of reading ease apparently “prompted more careful critical analysis of the argument,” in Hernandez’s words.

Hernandez found an exception to this pattern: Putting the participants under time pressure, or forcing them to do a lot of memorization, led them to follow their biases no matter which font they read. Their cognitive resources already spoken for, those individuals relied on their preconceived notions, even when forced to slow down.

But we all take mental shortcuts when pressed for time. The key finding here is that, under normal conditions, curbing our tendency to speed-read appears to short-circuit our tendency to stick with preconceived ideas. Hernandez concedes that his evidence “does not directly demonstrate that the effect is due to deeper processing,” but that’s the best and most logical explanation.

So, whoever is in control of the House and Senate in January, the first bill of the next session should a mandate a simple change in the Congressional Record. Let us print all proposed legislation in, say, comic sans. It may look silly, but for a lot of legislation, that’s entirely appropriate—and we might not reject other arguments quite so quickly.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.