Surprising Fluency

In yesterday’s blog post I talked about a new study of scientific papers, which shows that hit papers – the ones with highest impact – score highly on both “conventionality” and “novelty”. In other words, the very new thrives best when it’s planted in extremely familiar soil.

This got me wondering – is this a rule beyond the world of academic publishing? What is the balance of familiarity and novelty you need to make a hit in other areas?

It reminded me of this interesting piece of work, “Gut Liking For The Ordinary” by Jan Landwehr, Aparna Labroo and Andreas Herrmann. They wanted to understand more about what made new car designs a success or failure.

They looked at car designs through the lens of fluency – how easy it is for the brain to process information. Fluency is a hot topic in psychology and an important concept for anyone wanting to understand decisions. It explains, for instance, why a simple scent in a store can increase sales, but a more complex one has no effect: the added effort identifying and processing the scent makes it less effective.

Might this have an impact on car sales? Landwehr and his colleagues looked at cars on two dimensions. One was ‘prototypicality’ – essentially, how close a car is to our typical idea of what a car looks like. The other was complexity – the level of detail in the design. They then incorporated those features into sales prediction models to see whether the models got more accurate.

The researchers expected the most successful cars to be typical and simple – functional, ‘classic’ designs – or unusual and complex – more unique cars with individual appeal. But this is not what they found. Instead, the most successful cars scored highly on both dimensions. They were strongly prototypical – they fit expectations of what a car looked like – and at the same time complex and novel enough to surprise.

Landwehr et al. called this property surprising fluency. When our brains encounter something surprisingly fluent, we both process it easily (because it’s typical) but notice its novelty at the same time – the combination is pleasing and powerful.

It’s no great leap at this point to make a connection between the hit cars and the hit scientific papers. Like the cars, the hit papers are the ones that are simultaneously extremely typical (in the knowledge they contain) but new. Though the process of evaluating a car and a paper will be very different, might surprising fluency play a part in both?

I’ve only just started digging into this topic, so it’s no more than a hypothesis – but if surprising fluency does have a role to play in helping popularity, maybe it squares one particular behavioural circle. We know that people tend to make decisions habitually and default to what they already know. We also know that new things do become popular, all the time. Maybe instead of just focusing on how those new things are different from what’s out there – the surprise – we should also look harder at the fluency: how are they similar?


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