Cognition and Comic Sans

by Kieran Healy on December 29, 2010

Here’s a paper that will provoke a wave of denial in type nerds everywhere. Short version: setting information in hard-to-read fonts, including Comic Sans Italic, led to better retention amongst research subjects because of “disfluency”. When you have to work harder to read it, you remember it better.

Abstract: Previous research has shown that disfluency – the subjective experience of difficulty associated with cognitive operations – leads to deeper processing. Two studies explore the extent to which this deeper processing engendered by disfluency interventions can lead to improved memory performance. Study 1 found that information in hard-to-read fonts was better remembered than easier to read information in a controlled laboratory setting. Study 2 extended this finding to high school classrooms. The results suggest that superficial changes to learning materials could yield significant improvements in educational outcomes.

In the meantime, you can pry this Scala Regular from my cold, dead hands.

{ 18 comments }

1

Red 12.29.10 at 3:12 am

I sure hope the same is not true for my students’ handwriting in blue book exams.

2

KCinDC 12.29.10 at 3:35 am

Imagine the retention you’d get from Wingdings.

3

Bloix 12.29.10 at 3:38 am

It seems that the experimenters did not attempt to determine whether the subjects read the more difficult text more slowly. Perhaps all that is happening is that the less legible text requires the reader to spend more time in reading. If so, using less legible fonts for texts of any length would be likely to decrease the number of readers willing to finish the material.

4

John Quiggin 12.29.10 at 4:33 am

What Bloix said. This is a rediscovery of the 1990s finding that students write worse essays with word processing programs than on typewriters.

http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2004/01/26/the-hard-way/

5

Kieran Healy 12.29.10 at 10:27 am

I took the “disfluency” idea to mean just that — because it was harder to read, they went more slowly, and so remembered more.

6

Andrew 12.29.10 at 10:51 am

My main objection to Comic Sans is not due to fastidious typographical nerdishness, but the way it is pushed on people as a “readable” font – because it looks a little like a primary school teacher’s handwriting teachers tend to like it, and a huge mythology has arisen about it being easier for children to read, better for dyslexics, etc. The result is that people in many walks of life are actively pressured to use Comic Sans. There seems to be absolutely no evidence for this, and the few studies that have been done on different font choices (including this one) suggest it is actually less easy to read than more traditional fonts.

I can well believe that making things harder to read improves information retention – I underline with a pencil while reading philosophy books, and I’ve realised that this is not so much to highlight extracts, as to slow me down and make me think more about what I’m reading.

7

chris 12.29.10 at 2:27 pm

Probably, for the purposes of the experiment, 100% of readers bothered to put in the time to read the material even though it was difficult to read (or if not, those who didn’t were probably excluded from the dataset). That wouldn’t hold up in most real-world situations. When you have to work harder to read it, you *might not read it at all* if you have any choice in the matter (and students in a school do have a choice, even if one of the options is one that they might regret later; since students are generally children or adolescents, it’s probably not a good idea to count on them being far-sighted enough to realize that it will be worth the effort in the long run).

8

Steve LaBonne 12.29.10 at 3:09 pm

Comic Sans does have one valid use- I love the way PZ Myers always uses it when posting idiotic letters he receives from creationists.

9

zhava 12.29.10 at 5:24 pm

Fonts aside, when faced with a difficult passage that requires a bit more mental heft than usual it tends to stay in the memory bank longer than the stuff you scan easily and quickly get. Seems obvious… a huge amount of what we do is mechanical and automatic… content acquired in that mode is rather like in/out activity and gets the standard treatment, unlike passages (fonts?) that require more of a conscious effort.

The Fourth Way teacher G.I.Gurdjieff attempted to capitalize on this human feature by writing his trilogy Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson in a deliberately long winded and convoluted style, forcing the reader to pay more attention.

You get sentences like…

And about these (the Greeks and the Romans) from the point of view of your contemporary favorites, ‘very ancient’ communities, I must furthermore not fail to explain to you and possibly in detail, because not only did they then, as I have already said, make a clean sweep from the face of that unfortunate planet of the last results beneficial for all the three-brained beings of subsequent epochs, and even of all traces of the living memory of the Very Saintly Labors of the Essence-loving Ashiata Shiemash, but they were also the cause that real ‘nonsense’ already proceeds in the Reasons of the contemporary favorites of yours, and that there is completely atrophied in them that ‘fundamental-being-impulse’ which is the main lever of objective morality, and which is called ‘organic shame’.

No idea what font he used, but the effort to read Beelzebub definitely sharpens the
faculties.

10

Michal Čaplygin 12.29.10 at 6:32 pm

This all seems really interesting (per aspera ad astra comes to my mind) but please tell me, who and when has proven Comic Sans MS and other mentioned fonts to be a hard-to-read? I’ve scanned trough the thesis and found no citation proving this premise, what lowers its value a bit.
Moreover, I can recall at least one study proving namely the Comic Sans MS to be quite readable, at least not less readable than other currently major screen typefaces Legibility and readability on the
World Wide Web
.
My humble and nowadays controversial opinion about this certain font is that all its doom comes from its massive misuse rather than its design flaws. Besides its negative reception in the type nerds community it is a really well made font which can both handle its specific purpose and also remain greatly legible.

11

laufeysson 12.29.10 at 8:12 pm

Gurdjieff is a fun example but maybe a little controversial, so there’s also Buckminster Fuller. IIRC his “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” began as a commissioned speech, which he wrote in Bucky-speak (portmanteau words, idiosyncratic noun phrases) and the person who commissioned it declared it made no sense at all, until Fuller hit upon the idea of breaking the printed text into free verse.

Also, surely back in the day the Bauhaus or some of their contemporaries would have done studies on the comparative effect of Gothic script vs. Roman script? Germany wasn’t likely to have made the change without some research.

12

Matt McIrvin 12.30.10 at 2:20 am

Clearly malnourished students in underfunded schools in distracting, violent environments should have the best retention of all, because they have to work the hardest at it of anyone. We’ll get right on it.

13

The Modesto Kid 12.30.10 at 2:37 pm

I’m not that enthusiastic about reading stuff in lousy fonts to better my understanding of it (though I did like Holbo’s Christmas book so whatever), but I’m crazy about disfluency. For the past year I’ve been doing most of my fiction reading in Spanish, a language in which I am not at all fluent, and finding that (all other things being approximately equal, i.e. the texts under consideration are equally interesting) that the process of understanding the text working from Spanish is a whole lot more entertaining than the process of understanding the text working from English.

14

The Modesto Kid 12.30.10 at 3:49 pm

(I STR Beckett citing similar reasons for his decision to compose in French.)

15

Glen Tomkins 12.31.10 at 6:13 am

Lectio difficilior

The first rule of textual criticism is the bias towards taking the more difficult reading at any crux, because some harried copyist was more likely to make a mistake in the direction of making the text easier to understand in terms of the harried copyist world view, and might therefore tend to smooth out the more abstruse flights of fancy generated by the poet or philospher world view. I mean, only a Shakespeare would write the seemingly obvious untruth that “all that glitters is not gold”. More normal people tend to correct it to something that flows better, like “not all that glitters is gold”

That’s not exactly the same phenomenon being described, but the phrase is so much nicer than “disfluency”, and, plodding old copyist that I am, I can’t deal with the crux between the incoherent Latin of “disfluency”, versus the barbarism of “dysfluency”, so I’ll just throw in the more difficult idea.

16

Luke R 01.01.11 at 6:53 pm

“When you have to work harder to read it, you might not read it at all if you have any choice in the matter”

An equally important point is something which is harder to understand may be read without understanding it. For instance, suppose I’m reading the Phenomenology of Spirit – in comic sans. It takes longer to read each clause or weird phrase, increasing the time that I have to hold the other parts of the sentence in mind for. It may push me to the point where I have to re-read the sentence a few times – which then makes it harder to keep the flow of the text, the meanings of the previous sentences, etc. I may easily get to the end of a section and feel completely baffled by what just happened.

This might indicate an ‘n-shaped’ graph of comprehension/retention against difficulty. Too easy – skimmed over but leaks out shortly afterwards. Too hard – you get nothing. Some point in the middle is optimal. This wouldn’t be surprising, and would be similar to graphs of enjoyment vs. difficulty and performance vs. arousal.

17

tw.andrews 01.03.11 at 12:44 am

It seems to me that length/depth of retention is only one possible metric one can use when measuring the presentation of a text. In many situations, I’d imagine speed of apprehension to be equally or more important.

18

dario 01.03.11 at 5:02 pm

Readability aside. Comic Sans is simply hideous to look at. Its basically the “clip art” of fonts. If you want something to look like it was made by a second grader then, by all means, plug Comic Sans in there. If you want it to look cheap, feel free to do the same.

And I’m not saying use Helvetica for everything. If you want fonts that are harder to read, as this study states, there are tons and tons of hard to read fonts that aren’t the eyesore that Comic Sans is. Hell, even Chalkboard is better (not that I’m endorsing using that either.)

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