If it's hard to say, it must be risky

February 20, 2009

We all have different criteria for what we consider risky. However, numerous studies have suggested that we tend to perceive familiar products and activities as being less risky and hazardous than unfamiliar ones.

If something is familiar, the thinking goes, it is comfortable and safe. But how do we know if something is familiar? We often rely on a simple shortcut: If it is easy to perceive, remember or pronounce, we have probably seen it before. If so, will a product's name and how easy it is to pronounce, affect how we view the product? Will it seem safer when its name is easy to pronounce? In a new study reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychologists Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz from the University of Michigan present evidence that we if have problems pronouncing something, we will consider it to be risky.

A group of students were given a list of made-up food additives and were asked to rate how harmful they were. The additives all contained twelve letters, with Magnalroxate being one of the easiest to pronounce and Hnegripitrom one of the hardest to pronounce. The students rated the difficult to pronounce additives as being more harmful. In addition, the hard to pronounce additives were considered to be more novel than those with easier names. In another experiment, students were shown a list of made-up names of amusement-park rides and were asked to rate the rides on how adventurous they would be and how risky (and therefore most likely to make them sick) the rides would be. The names ranged from being easy to pronounce (such as Chunta) to very difficult to pronounce (such as Vaiveahtoishi). Consistent with the first experiment, the students rated the rides with the difficult to pronounce names as being more risky, but also more exciting.

These results show that people consistently classify difficult to pronounce items as risky, and this is the case for both undesirable risks (such as getting sick on a roller coaster or hazardous food additive) as well as desirable risks (such as an adventurous amusement park ride). These findings also suggest that risk perception may be influenced by the way the items are presented - if they are difficult to process (such as hard to pronounce names), they will be viewed as being inherently riskier. The authors note that these findings are relevant for risk communication and they suggest that difficult product names "may alert consumers to the risks posed by potentially hazardous products, possibly motivating them to pay closer attention to warnings and instructions."

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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TrevorBGood
5 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2009
I think that this study shows, how wonderful our minds are at both organizing and associating difficult to understand concepts. I do not think that it proves that if something is more difficult to pronounce - we will associate it with greater risk.

When their is no meaning to a word, the human mind uses whatever it can to organize it. Any scale will almost always present the mind with the association of difficulty (somethings are easier than others). Then it only has to look for a way to organize the various factors.

If there is no meaningful content to the subjects that are be sorted. We will undoubtedly look for any arbitrary method, if required to do so. Our minds, whether by choice or subconsciously, will examine the alternatives and choose the method that best suits a scale. In this case difficulty to say. This is something we know well and can apply easily.

But if we take a look at real life, we will see an entirely different set of rules for human behavior. Skydive is easier to say than fornicate. Yet more people believe that fornication is less risky than skydiving. Proven by the number of people that fornicate as opposed to the number of people the skydive. Both provide a rush of excitement, both are risky, both are expensive. I think skydiving is cheaper than the customary three dates. You can fall to your death while skydiving and you can also get HIV/AIDS fornicating and die as a result.

The meaning we associate with the concept(word) is, I think, of far greater value at predicting whether we will think it is riskier. Love is associated with fornication. Falling is associated with skydiving.

What is the value of this study then? It will help advertisers to choose better names for their products. But they already knew that - they know to keep-it-simple so the mindless masses can understand it and remember the name tomorrow when they go to the shops.

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