9 Apr 2015

Making Writing Seem More Honest

From Our Changing World, 9:34 pm on 9 April 2015

By Ruth Beran

To make your writing appear more honest, keep it simple.

That’s what PhD student Helen Owen from the University of Otago has found after conducting experiments on up to 150 participants to explore how easily writing is processed. Her research will be lapped up by politicians and speech writers, because the easier writing is to process, the more honest the writer is perceived to be and the more truthful their statements are judged to be. 

Her advice is to: “cut your speech down to using simple vocabulary to avoid the pomposity, take out the longer words, but be really explicit about how these words relate to each other.”

She’s also found that it’s important to signal the explicit relationships between words and use “connectors”.

A photo of Helen Owen who is analysing why writing is perceived to be more or less honest

Helen Owen is analysing why writing is perceived to be more or less honest Photo: Caitlin Owen

Explicit connectors are words like ‘that’, ‘because’, ‘about’ and ‘since’. “They’re almost like conjunctions, they join pairs of verbs together,” says Helen. They are very precise and indicate that the writer is clearly trying to link actions or verbs.

Using connectors in a sentence makes it easier or fluent for the reader to process the writing. “Fluency is associated with a positive affective response in the reader and this spills onto positive characteristics of the writer including honesty,” says Helen.

So the more connectors there are in a sentence the more honest the writing appears, except if they are implicit connectors. These are connectors that are missed out of a sentence.

Helen gives the following example: “We knew we should ease our hunger with some extremely delicious pizza.” This sentence leaves out the word “that”. The reader has to mentally insert it which requires more effort to process. Since the text is less fluently processed, the writer appears less honest. To make the sentence easier to read it should read: “We knew that we should ease our hunger with some extremely delicious pizza.”

Helen has also found that simple or complex use of language, and the use of connectors, can impact not just on how the writer is perceived but also how the writer perceives others.

“If the writer is feeling cognitively taxed by their complex vocabulary this will spill into how they feel about themselves, and also how they judge others honest or dishonest behaviours,” says Helen. In particular, it was found that women who were asked to write in a complex way judged others’ potentially immoral behaviour more harshly than men in the same situation. And older people were harsher than younger people.

In an age of social media, Helen wants to do further experiments comparing tweets with blog pieces and emails. For example, she’d like to know if the 140 character limit for tweets is simplifying language or resulting in writing that’s harder to process because there are more implicit connectors.

In the meantime, her advice is clear. “Even President’s speeches…[have] become more simple over time, language is becoming shorter over time and it’s a trend that we need to sort of get on board with because we’ll see positive benefits. Not only in how we feel about ourselves but how we perceive others,” she says.

Listen to Helen’s previous research looking at how well faces fit into the male and female categories here.

Helen is supervised by Jamin Halberstadt, listen to other work in his group on names, shapes and faces here.