Mark Hochhauser, who holds a PhD in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, is a readability consultant based in Minnesota. Writing, reading, judging, and deciding, he explained at his PLAIN 2013 plenary session, are neurobiological processes that take place in different parts of the brain. Plain language can benefit some of them, but not all.
What can affect reading comprehension?
Word knowledge is critical for good comprehension. You need to know 85–90 percent of words to understand a document; to fully understand, you need to know 98–99 percent. Hochhauser was quick to add, “Common understanding of legal words is not the same thing as legal understanding of legal words.”
Vocabulary does not correlate with language comprehension or verbal fluency in adults with low literacy. Poor readers tend to recognize individual words but have not made the shift to stringing them together into sentences.
“All readers are not the same,” said Hochhauser. Reading, comprehension, and cognition are affected by
- the aging brain, learning difficulties, and disorders like ADD/ADHD
- how reading comprehension is measured: True/false questions, for example, are not good tests of comprehension, and some reading tests use only a few hundred words.
- health problems: Acute coronary syndrome, intensive care, chemotherapy, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, drug addiction, traumatic brain injury, and menopausal transition can all affect how well we think.
How do we make decisions?
Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, noted a “law of least effort” in thinking and decision making. Hochhauser explained, “If there are several ways to achieve the same goal, readers will take the least demanding route.” We have two systems of thinking: logical and emotional. Decisions are emotional first, logical second. “We often feel a decision before we can verbalize it,” he said. Whereas logical decisions are slow, controlled, and require a lot of effort, emotional decisions are fast, automatic, and require little effort. Our brains can retain only so much information, said Hochhauser. Miller’s Law refers to 7 ± 2—the number of items we can retain in our short-term memory, but more recent research suggests we can retain only about 4 to 7, depending on age (peaking at 25–35).
When we make quick decisions, we rely on intuition, which Hochhauser defined as “knowledge without reasoning” and “knowledge without awareness.” We are influenced by heuristics—shortcuts to making decisions. “Affect heuristics” are tied to our emotional responses to previous experiences, and “effort heuristics” make us assign value to work based on the perceived effort that went into it. Our decisions are also strongly influenced by how information is framed: Would you prefer “75 percent lean” or “25 percent fat”? “Ninety-one percent employment” or “9 percent unemployment”?
Hochhauser concluded with an anecdote about an amusing bit of legalese in a letter he received that read, “Please read and understand the enclosed document.” The problem is, of course, as Hochhauser put it, “You cannot compel understanding.”