The Self Illusion

How the social brain creates identity

How to Excel on an Exam in One Easy Step

Legibility affects belief

It is that time of year again when thousands of young students up and down the country scribble their way through exam papers trying to regurgitate the contents of their minds into a meaningful answer. Then, as examiners, we are expected to decipher the hieroglyphics and spider writing looking for the train of thought, thrust of argument and body of evidence to prove that they know what they are talking about and more importantly, determine whether they have answered the question. If there is one simple thing that can improve your grades, then make your writing legible.

Most students think that grades depend on what you write in terms of answering the question and yes, this is true but the simple fact is that if an examiner cannot easily read what has been written, then it is very difficult to give a good grade – no matter how much the student knows about the answer. Aside from not understanding what a student is trying to say, few examiners have the luxury of time to spend working out what has been written which, of course, makes accessibility to the truth harder to find.

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Consider these two statements

Orsano is a volcano in Chile

Orsano is a volcano in Chile

I am going to assume two things. One, that you do not know whether Orsano is actually a volcano in Chile and second, the first statement is more legible than the second (this is, after all, dependent on how you are viewing this text). When shown statements that are more legible, individuals are more likely to believe those that can be more easily read than the same statement which is more difficult to decipher.

Using these types of studies, Rolf Reber and colleagues have shown that fluency of reading affects the plausibility of statements. Maybe this explains that peculiar experience I often have when I see a piece I have written properly typeset and printed out compared to the scrawled long hand notes that I typically use when sketching out ideas for a book or an article. Of course, just like an exam, the content has to be accurate but I am sure that Reber's fluency finding has a more general implication for the way that ease of processing leads to greater accessibility. In fact, ease of processing affects all manner of judgments such as aesthetic beauty which is probably where the phrase "easier on the eye" stems from. The easier it is to process, the more you like something.

Speaking of which, by coincidence, the ebook version of my new book, "The Self Illusion" has just been launched. And if you believe that is a coincidence, then I guess you'll believe anything you read!

BTW Yes, Orsano is a volcano in Chile!

Bruce Hood, Ph.D., is the Chair in Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol.

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