On Second Thought

Outsmarting your mind's hard-wired habits.

The "Piece of Cake Heuristic"

Jargony names convey importance.

Don't bother searching your psychology textbook or your long-term memory. There is no "Piece of Cake Heuristic." I just made that up. I made it up and capitalized the main words and threw in an obscure word and added quotation marks-all so you, the reader, might consider the concept intellectually important and worthy of your attention. After all, it has a name and it's in print-so it must have some heft, right?

Well, maybe--or maybe not, according to new research. University of Chicago psychologist Aparna Labroo and colleagues wondered if simply naming an idea-an economic theory, a medical diagnosis, a legal precedent-might make it easier for the mind to process, and thus more accessible. They further speculated that this cognitive ease might shape judgments of importance. They gave this idea a jargony label (the "Name-Ease" Effect), and then tested it in the laboratory.

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Labroo's idea is consistenA new and easy name for the familiarity heuristict with a body of earlier work on mental effort: If ideas are easier to process for whatever reason, we tend to find them more familiar and comfortable. Vocabulary, pronunciation, even the typeface in which these sentences are printed-all these can affect cognitive palatability. Labroo wanted to see if official names might have the same force. The link to importance is a bit more complicated. We all believe ideas are important if they are memorable-after all, that's why we remember them. But we also associate importance with difficulty: The tougher to grasp, the more important an idea must be. If it's too easy to process, it must be trivial.

The psychologists wanted to sort out these competing ideas, and here's one of several experiments they ran. They had a group of volunteers read a legal case concerning school prayer. They all read the same case description, but for some the case was given a name, Engel v. Vitale. Once they had all read the case, some of the volunteers were asked to recall the details of the case, while others were instructed to think about the meaning of the case. In other words, some completed a memory task while others completed a comprehension task. Then they all rated the importance of the school prayer case.

The researchers were exploring the interplay of effort, memory and understanding in judgments of importance-and the findings were intriguing. Knowing that the case was officially called Engel v Vitale made it seem more important-but only for those who were focused on remembering it. In other words, the name made the information easier to process, and attributing this ease to the case's memorability gave it weight. The case name did the opposite for those who were actually trying to comprehend the case: It made the case seem too familiar, and thus run-of-the-mill and simplistic.

Labroo and her colleagues reran this experiment many times, with a variety of ideas: an economic principle (the Coase Theorem); a mathematical concept (the Weierstrass Theorem); a medical diagnosis (acromegaly); and a psychological concept (Optimal Distinctiveness Theory). They got the same basic results, no matter what the subject matter. The psychologists' paper on the "Name-Ease" Effect was published in the journal Psychological Science. You be the judge of its importance.

My book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, has just been published by Crown. This essay on the "Piece of Cake Heuristic" does not appear in the book, but it is closely related to the "fluency heuristic"--discussed in detail in Chapter 4.


Wray Herbert is a science writer and author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits.


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