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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.

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