The Importance of being familiar

In academia and elsewhere, as we have noted  many times, there are biased reactions that one can trigger through being identified as a woman.  The general mechanism might be the same for, say, Asians, but the specifics might well be different.

There are other biasing reactions that women and Asians together might trigger that would have  much more of the same content.  We’ve looked at these less, but we did note that insiders have considerable advantages over outsiders at least because the good performances of insiders tend to be remembered more positively for longer periods of time.

We’re grateful to reader L.A. for sending us another example.  Things that are easier to process are ranked better on scales of truthfulness, liking and so on: 

Uniting the Tribes of Fluency to Form a Metacognitive Nation

Alter  & Oppenheimer

Processing fluency, or the subjective experience of ease with which people process information, reliably influences people’s judgments across a broad range of social dimensions. Experimenters have manipulated processing fluency using a vast array of techniques, which, despite their diversity, produce remarkably similar judgmental consequences. For example, people similarly judge stimuli that are semantically primed (conceptual fluency), visually clear (perceptual fluency), and phonologically simple (linguistic fluency) as more true than their less fluent counterparts. The authors offer the first comprehensive review of such mechanisms and their implications for judgment and decision making. Because every cognition falls along a continuum from effortless to demanding and generates a corresponding fluency experience, the authors argue that fluency is a ubiquitous metacognitive cue in reasoning and social judgment.

My library doesn’t have the article on line yet, and I’m hesitant to do much interpreting without reading.  But even the abstract is very interesting.  Facility in processing causes (to some extent) more  positive reaction. I’m pretty sure this has been found to hold true in other areas, such as art.  Over some range of cases, the brain’s reaction to the familiar  and the pleasurable can be at least very similar, if I’m remembering correctly. 

In any case, women giving papers, for example, might be well advised to try to think about how to present their work to moderate the  problems the lack of familiarity of their person and their ideas present.

Or not.  At what point does one decide it isn’t worth it?  What do you think?

6 thoughts on “The Importance of being familiar

  1. Yes, this rings completely true. When I was trying to integrate into the culture that I am currently in, I lacked fluency in negotiating its cultural characteristics. I often asked for help but was rarely met with anything but disbelief (that I was genuinely needy) or even condemnation (apparently for being lazy in the sense of not knowing everything I needed to know already) when I tried to gather more information in order to adapt. I guess that my necessarily hesitant way of speaking meant that my claims to need information and advice were unfounded: untrue.

  2. Jennifer, thanks so much. I think you are bringing out how one can end up in a catch-22 situation. One sounds believable as long as one doesn’t say what is in fact true.

  3. jj, I’d be glad to send you a pdf of the paper – do you have an e-mail account available that would preserve your anonymity? Or, wait, I’ll send you a link to it via the “Contact Us” function.

    One thing that I found fascinating is that the authors explain that our cultures and personal predispositions give us what they call “naive theories” that tell us what interpretations to put on fluency. For example, in some contexts, encountering something disfluent (like a work of art that takes effort to process) might be considered desirably sophisticated, but in others disfluency seems clumsy or awkward. It’s these naive theories that we can try to influence, when their outcomes are undesirable.

    One recent paper they cited – which I’ve printed out but haven’t gotten to look at yet – apparently does just this, teaching people that in some experimental context, fluency of processing indicates non-truthfulness.

  4. lga, thanks so much. Now that you mention it, of course I can see that the standards much vary. I have a friend working on art in medical contexts and there was is very popular is work that is very easy to process, but it’s not what would appeal to art students, apparently.

    I’d love to have a copy: it should reach me at

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