Saturday, October 07, 2006


The folks at the Journal of Improbable Research hand out yearly Ig Nobel Prizes for foolish, obvious, or just plain silly achievements. Last year's Ig Nobel in Literature, for instance, went to
The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters -- General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others -- each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.
This year's prize has gone to what seems, once you get past its title, actually useful work. The author is Daniel Oppenheimer, a Princeton psychologist, and his article is titled "Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly." The abstract:
Most texts on writing style encourage authors to avoid overly-complex words. However, a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective. Experiments 1-3 manipulate complexity of texts and find a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence. This relationship held regardless of the quality of the original essay, and irrespective of the participants' prior expectations of essay quality. The negative impact of complexity was mediated by processing fluency. Experiment 4 directly manipulated fluency and found that texts in hard to read fonts are judged to come from less intelligent authors. Experiment 5 investigated discounting of fluency. When obvious causes for low fluency exist that are not relevant to the judgement at hand, people reduce their reliance on fluency as a cue; in fact, in an effort not to be influenced by the irrelevant source of fluency, they over-compensate and are biased in the opposite direction. Implications and applications are discussed.
In short: big words make you seem more of a dumbass than you are.

The one I really want to read is the winner in Medicine, "Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage." Ouch.


Brian said...

It seems on every other paper this term (and perhaps more often), I find myself writing the same comment--"Clarity is key." I may not teach them a damn thing about poetry or freshman composition, but damnit, by the time they leave my class, they'll learn that lesson.

Amy said...

You can lead a freshman to clarity, but you cannot make him learn.