The curious effect of font

It’s intuitive that choosing the most legible font is the path of least resistance when wanting to get your message remembered – however this isn’t always the case.

Let’s start by asking a simple question…

“You have a bat and a ball. Together they cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

10c right? Well, no… It’s actually 5c.

If you answered swiftly and fell into the 10c trap, don’t feel bad. Over 50% of Harvard students got this question wrong when asked.

This question is the first of three that form ‘The cognitive reflection test.’ This test was designed to see how well we can suppress our original ‘quick’ thinking answers to seemingly easy questions, which actually have somewhat more complicated answers. Across the three questions only 17% of Harvard students got all three correct.

Amazingly, when the questions were put into a hard to read font, the researchers found that 65% got all three answers right!

This extraordinary effect of challenging fonts improving cognitive performance has also been tested in Ohio schools. Teachers at Ohio schools were tasked to present their materials in the traditional “New Times Roman’ or the rather harder to decipher “Monotype Corsiva.” The students whose teachers had used the harder to read font all performed better on their SAT scores.

Why does this happen you ask…? The answer is found in the way that we all process information. Our brains have two distinct systems for processing info:

System 1 thinking is quick, intuitive and effortless. We spend most of our time in system 1. It helps us recognise faces, answer 2 + 2 fast. It’s also what causes us to answer 10c to the bat and ball problem.

System 2 thinking is slower, more deliberate and analytical. We use system 2 for problem solving thinking, such as determining that the ball cost 5c!

Research has shown that using a harder to read font puts cognitive strain on our brains. This flicks us into system 2 thinking – it will make us more analytical and more likely to deliberate over the information presented to us. So, if we have proof reading to do, or we want our message to be deeply considered then using an illustrious font choice makes good sense.

Likewise, if we do not want a reader to question our message overly, then the clearer your font the less likely you are to be questioned.

And behold – that is the curious effect of font!

If you are interested in the other 2 questions from the Cognitive reflection test, today’s your lucky day:

Question 2 – If it take 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets.

Question 3 – In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take to cover half the lake.

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