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Updated 11:00 AM June 30, 2008
 

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  Research
If it's hard to read, often it's hard to do

Maybe reading the instructions is overrated.

New research by U-M professor Norbert Schwarz and colleague Hyunjin Song shows that instructions printed in a hard-to-read font may scare people from taking on the task.

"People are more likely to engage in a given behavior the less effort it requires," says Schwarz, a marketing professor at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and a professor of psychology. "They misread the ease of processing instructions as indicative of the ease with which the described behavior can be executed."

Schwarz and Song, a doctoral student in psychology, conducted several studies to test their prediction. Participants were given instructions in various fonts of the same size and asked to rate the difficulty for the corresponding activity. Across the board, the font deemed more difficult to read elicited a higher degree of difficulty rating.

One of the studies provided instructions for an exercise routine printed in two fonts. The first group received instructions in Arial, a sans-serif font, while the second group's instructions were in Brush Script MT 12, a slanted cursive-like font.

"As expected, participants inferred that the exercise routine would flow more naturally and take less time when the font was easy to read," Song says. "As a result, they reported higher willingness to make the exercise part of their daily routine."

Schwarz and Song also controlled for inconsistent memory and found participants recalled details of the instructions equally well regardless of the font used.

A person's tendency to draw on metacognitive experiences — that is, thinking about thinking — in making judgments should be useful for marketers and designers, the researchers say. With this in mind, instructions can be designed to increase the appeal of the described behavior and make people more likely to engage in it, they say.

The research will appear in the October issue of Psychological Science.

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