Steve Jobs, Information Psychologist

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ipad - steve jobs - Justin Sullivan.jpg
To some observers, he is the arch-survivor, rising phoenix-like over childhood misery and life-threatening illness; to others, he is the maestro of perfect technological pitch, in tune with the soul of the new machine. My favorite insight into Steve Jobs, though, comes from an essay mentioning neither Jobs nor any Apple product.

The economic and psychological studies Drake Bennett cites in The Boston Globe suggest that our minds are inclined to take the path of least resistance, systematically choosing easier solutions:

Cognitive fluency is simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard. On the face of it, it's a rather intuitive idea. But psychologists are only beginning to uncover the surprising extent to which fluency guides our thinking, and in situations where we have no idea it is at work.

Psychologists have determined, for example, that shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names do indeed significantly outperform those with hard-to-pronounce names. Other studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process - even totally non-substantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it - can alter people's judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement's author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities.

Steve Jobs is cognitive fluency incarnate. Consider Apple's name. It's the simplest among the great computer companies. True, Xerox and Google have shown that strange words aren't necessarily an obstacle to success. But Apple has the only logo in the group that evokes a concrete object, and one with powerful global cultural resonance. Mac, iPod, and now iPad are as short and easy to pronounce as trademarks get, among the best since Kodak, the late 19th century's personal usability miracle.

The design of Apple products is also cognitively fluent--not always right for every user, but certainly clearer. Consider the mouse. "Two buttons bad, one button good" has always been Jobs's watchword--and with tablet computing it's "Zero buttons even better." Jobs not only sponsored the first great set of icons--developed by Susan Kare, now an independent designer--but he extended the concept to devices of all sizes. Across each product line choices are limited but so rigorously defined that whatever is missing, like a netbook, is absent for a reason.

Of course not everybody wants a philosopher-king designer. Some of the right-click crowd are openly hostile. But that's another part of cognitive fluency. Today's scoffer may be tomorrow's convert. The main thing: few are indifferent. Even a joke video by the satirical weekly, The Onion, last year was on balance great free publicity. Parody is homage.

Unfortunately, there's a downside of cognitive fluency. Clarity does not necessarily make us smarter. Totalitarian glyphs and runes etched themselves in the minds of generations. More innocently, typography's effect on readers sometimes creates problems. High-quality laser printers with scalable fonts (pioneered by Steve Jobs in the mid-1980s) can make banal ideas seem more cogent to their student writers, yet before laser printing and electronic submission became routine, there was evidence that teachers actually spent less time commenting on elegantly printed papers and assigned lower grades. Even now, writers of all ages catch fewer errors when proofreading their own work printed in legible fonts than in difficult ones. Cognitive dysfluency, Bennett's article suggests, has its uses, and thus perhaps Apple's elegance has its own risks:

[T]o get people to think carefully and to prevent them from making silly mistakes, make them work to process the question: make the font hard to read, the cadence awkward, and the wording unfamiliar.

(Question: if so, why were so many investors conned by Bernard Madoff's dot-matrix account summaries?)

Apart from Steve Jobs and information technology, does "cognitive fluency" have a buzzword future? I fear not. The concept might yet produce a best seller, but the phrase itself is too close to the psych lab to become the next "emotional intelligence." It lacks . . . cognitive fluency.

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images 




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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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