Reading and Believing

Rather than focusing on a new technology or website in our year-end review on the Digital Campus podcast, I chose reading as the big story of 2011. Surely 2011 was the year that digital reading came of age, with iPad and Kindle sales skyrocketing, apps for reading flourishing, and sites for finding high-quality long-form writing proliferating. It was apropos that Alan Jacobs‘s wonderful book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was published in 2011.

Indeed, the relationship between reading and distraction was one of the things that caught my eye reading Daniel Kahneman‘s essential Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman speaks of two systems in the mind—he eschews “intuition” and “reason” for the more neutral “System 1” and “System 2″—with the first making quick, unconscious assessments and the second engaging in much more studious, and laborious, calculations. Since our minds (like our bodies) are naturally lazy, we prefer to stick with System 1’s judgments as much as possible, unless jarred out of it into the grumpier System 2.

In the fifth chapter of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman addresses the act of reading, and the impulse—even in what is normally thought of as the most cerebral of human acts—to fall back on System 1, to associate the ease of reading with the truth of what is read:

How do you know that a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences you hold, or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease. The trouble is that there may be other causes for your feeling of ease—including the quality of the font and the appealing rhythm of the prose—and you have no simple way of tracing your feelings to their source.

Thus the context writing exists in and other aspects unrelated to the actual content are critical to the reception that writing receives. In addition to studies on the effects of different fonts on credibility, Kahneman also cites experiments that show the importance of the quality of paper (for printed materials), of the contrast between a font and its background, and of the presence of distractions that reduce the cognitive ease of reading. In short, environments that make it easy to read also make it easy to believe what is being read. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this mixture of context and content is that is it extremely difficult for you to separate the two.

So legibility and the absence of distractions are not just design niceties; when a reader chooses to move an article into an app like Instapaper, they are strongly increasing the odds that they will like what they read and agree with it. And since readers often make that relocation at the recommendation of a trusted source, the written work is additionally “framed” as worthy even before the act of reading has begun.

Commercial publishers may not like the use of Instapaper or Readability, which strip the distractions otherwise known as ads from a cluttered website to focus solely on the text at hand, but they are an unalloyed good for writers.


[…] (Cohen is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason […]

[…] day. Dan Cohen’s blog is one I almost always stop to read in full. Yesterday, I read his post Reading and Believing, and immediately went searching for the 2 books he mentions: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of […]

[…] Reading Isn’t Just a Monkish Pursuit. Or read my GMU colleague Dan Cohen’s recent post on Reading and Believing and Alan Jacob’s post on Making Reading Hard. Cohen and Jacob both use Daniel Kahneman’s […]

[…] of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (and subsequent posts at Sample Reality, and by Dan Cohen), and on President Obama’s recent statements about higher education costs and […]

Michael Meeder says:

In his book Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow introduces the concept of the “believing” and “doubting” games–complementary methods of approaching texts which he claims are both vital to the “intellectual enterprise” (145).

By playing the “doubting game,” you can come to realize your own opinions and positions by reacting against those of another writer, by engaging in what Elbow calls a “dialectic of propositions” (149).

Elbow’s article is a plea for a more balanced approach that also includes the “believing game.” Rather than extricating yourself from the text the believing game allows you to project yourself into a writer’s point of view, to try it on for size, to “try to have that experience of meaning” (165). You intentionally believe everything–taking in a text as Elbow says, the way an owl eats a mouse–and trust your “organism” eventually to sort out the useful from the unuseful.

Karen Schriver has an excellent book on the principles of rhetorical document design. This is my current topic of research – thanks for your talks.

[…] Borrowing an idea from the book Thinking: Fast and Slow by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Dan Cohen points out that the easier it is to physically read something (i.e., the more legible it is) the more likely […]

[…] from the opposite case, since Daniel Kahneman has shown that a nice typeface may make us less aware of an author’s sloppy writing or […]

[…] Dan Cohen, Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, published a blog post reflecting on some of the cognitive biases at work in the everyday act of reading, as reported in […]

[…] Cohen, Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, published a blog post reflecting on some of the cognitive biases at work in the everyday act of reading, as reported in […]

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