Cognitive fluency and learning: the importance of simple language

eLearning Expert Talks
11 December 2023
Apprendimento

Thinking, Fast and Slow

“If you care about being thought credible, do not use complex language where simpler language will do”.

Oppenheimer

Daniel M. Oppenheimer, a psychologist and professor at Princeton University, writes this illuminating definition within an article titled Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly.

I take this definition from the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman,probably the most influential living psychologist, who has brought to light some characteristics of the human mind, in particular the two fundamental mechanisms that govern our choices: on the one hand intuition,irrational choice; on the other, logic,rationality, considered choice.

These studies show that, unlike our beliefs about ourselves, our choices are mainly guided by intuition, with rational thought often relinquishing its role of control and evaluation.

Kahneman’s studies allow us, among other things, to better understand the dynamics that make popular language crucial in education, as well as, naturally, in communication.

Popular language

Popular language is a key element in achieving effective learning, as it facilitates the understanding and memorisation of concepts. The use of clear and accessible language contributes to an inclusive learning environment, which is essential to reach students with different skills and abilities.

The real secret of communication lies in making complex concepts understandable, not in making simple concepts complex (Albert Einstein). At Cyber Guru Italia, we have always been inspired by this vision, focusing on clear and effective language. This has undoubtedly been one of the elements that has differentiated us in an industry where there is a widespread tendency to use acronyms and technicalities.

There are many reasons, some almost self-evident, for the effectiveness of popular language in education, but the angle that Daniel Kahneman offers us is certainly of particular interest.

Intuition and rationality

As already mentioned, given that the fundamental working mechanisms of the human mind are those of intuition and those of rationality,most of our choices are dictated by intuition, by what the American psychologist calls SYSTEM 1,which “operates quickly and automatically, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control”.
We are talking about so-called “fast thinking”, its enormous capabilities, but also its frequent mistakes.

The rational component, what Kahneman calls SYSTEM 2, is the one that guides the most demanding mental activities, which require focus and concentration, with a role that should be to control and evaluate all the instinctive choices of SYSTEM 1.

However, this system is very lazy and only activates in particular situations, often leaving the entire decision-making process to SYSTEM 1.

The division of labour between SYSTEM 1 and SYSTEM 2 is very efficient, as it minimises effort and optimises performance. In general, SYSTEM 1 knows how to do its job but is subject to systematic errors, so-called cognitive biases, which it tends to make under certain circumstances.

A sense of familiarity

Let us now return to the connection between popular language and effective learning, recalling the operation of SYSTEM 1, which is subject to some “superficial” evaluations linked to a series of “illusions”. One of these is the so-called illusion of truth, which is conditioned by the sense of familiarity.

If the communicator makes use of words and concepts that are familiar to us, we are more willing to grant them credibility and thus give them our attention.

“The impression of familiarity is produced by SYSTEM 1 and SYSTEM 2 relies on this impression to determine a truth/falsity judgement with respect to what is being exhibited”.

This impression of familiarity transports us into a state called cognitive fluidity, which predisposes us better towards what we are doing and makes it less cognitively demanding.

Remember that SYSTEM 2 is lazy and perceives mental effort as negative. The recipient wishes to steer clear of anything that reminds them of effort.

Conclusions

Simple language makes the message and the whole learning process more effective because:

  • it facilitates the understanding of the message,
  • it reduces the cognitive load associated with message decoding,
  • it increases the learner’s motivation to learn.

Let us now return to the Cognitive Load Theory (J. Sweller, 1988), according to which the processing capacity of working memory is limited; complex and intricate language can increase the cognitive load, making it more difficult for the learner to understand and memorise new concepts.

The whole argument can be quickly summarised in this way: through the sense of familiarity constituted by simple language, an illusion of truth is generated, which fosters a state of cognitive fluidity, which predisposes the learner to accept the educational content being conveyed.

We can therefore exploit an illusion to generate positive effects on the learning process. Of course, illusions of truth can also be exploited to deceive the mind, as happens in the case of fake news… but that is another matter, and we will return to it.

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