Hochhauser: How Do Our Readers Really Think, Understand, and Decide-- Despite What They Know?
How Do Our Readers
Really Think, Understand, and Decide—
Despite What They Know?
Mark Hochhauser, Ph.D.
9th Conference and 20th Anniversary of
Plain Language Association International
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Writing, reading, judging and deciding
are neurobiological processes:
They take place in
different parts of the brain
So give some thought
to how a reader’s brain
what your brain writes.
Plain language benefits some, not all
Text comprehension studies
1. “…word knowledge is critical for good
comprehension. Vocabulary is the single
best predictor of comprehension ability.”
2. “…a reader needs to know the meanings
of 90 percent of the individual words
contained within a text in order to
3. Readers need to understand about
98% of the vocabulary for adequate
• Vocabulary did not strongly correlate with
language comprehension or verbal fluency in
adults with low literacy.
• Low literacy adults haven’t made the shift
from word recognition to language
All readers are not the same
Reading, comprehension and cognition are
1) Aging brain; Learning disabilities,
attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
2) How reading comprehension is measured
and on whom
3) Health problems
adult coronary syndrome
medical inpatient experience
common medical conditions
type II diabetes
traumatic brain injury
vascular risk factors
Five Judgment and Decision Making
“Law of least effort”:
If there are several ways to achieve the
readers will eventually take the least
Less demanding routes to a decision
• Two Thinking Systems
• Information Overload
1. Thinking strategies:
Two Thinking Systems
Decisions are emotional first;
a) Slow decisions
a) Fast decisions
c) Much effort
c) No effort
d) Complex analysis
e) Sensible and logical
f) Delayed decisions
2. Information Overload
How much information can
a reader store in “working memory?”
• Early research: 7, + 2 or about 5 – 9 items
• Later research: 3 – 5 items
• More recent: 4-7, depending on age:
Peaks around age 25 – 35
A reader’s brain can only process a
limited amount of information;
especially in the aging brain
If cognitively overloaded,
readers must use other ways
to reach a conclusion
or make a decision.
3. Intuition: Knowledge without reasoning
Direct perception of truth or fact
independent of any reasoning process
Involves selective focus on specific aspects
of an experience
• “Knowing without awareness”—automatically
(unconsciously) not cognitively (consciously)
• “Thin slicing”—”the ability of our unconscious
to find patterns in situations and behavior based
on narrow slices of experience”
4. Heuristic strategies: simplify complex
choices by finding adequate answers to
How to pick a Medicare
supplemental health plan:
a) Analyze all of the online and printed
information available to compare plans—a
complicated and time consuming task;
requires good research skills
b) Affect heuristic:
eliminate plan “M” because previous
bad experience = painful emotions and
c) Effort heuristic:
More value given to work that takes
more time, especially if value is
5. Psychological Framing
Framing: using different ways to present
the same information
• Beef is 75% lean (a healthy gain)
• Beef is 25% fat (an unhealthy loss)
They mean the same, but are interpreted
1. Plain language may make
information more comprehensible for
some readers, but not all.
2. There are limits to how much
information a reader’s brain can
remember and process.
3. The reader’s brain will come with its
own ways to make decisions.
Fletcher, J.M. (2006) Measuring Reading Comprehension. Scientific Studies of
Reading, 10(3), 323-330.
Gladwell, M. (2002) The Tipping Point. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co.
Hochhauser, M. (2012) Can sick patients understand informed consent? SoCRA
Source, 74, 72-74.
Kahneman, D, (2003) A perspective on judgment and choice: Mapping bounded
rationality. American Psychologist, 58(9) , 697-720.
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Klingberg, T. (2009) The Overflowing Brain. Information Overload and the
Limits of Working Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Krugera, J., Wirtza, D., et al. (2004) The Effort Heuristic. Journal of
Experimental Social Psychology, 40(1), 91-98.
Landi, N. (2010) An examination of the relationship between reading
comprehension, higher-level and lower-level reading sub-skills in adults.
Reading and Writing, July 1: 23(6), 701-717.
Levin, I.P. & Gaeth, G.J. (1988) How consumers are affected by the framing of
attribute information before and after consuming the product.
Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 374-378.
Mellard, D.F., Fall,, D. & Woods, K.L. (2010) A path analysis of reading
comprehension for adults with low literacy. Journal of Learning Disabilities,
Myers, D. (2002) Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. New Haven: Yale University
Nation, I.S.P. (2006) How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening?
The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(1), 59-82.
Perfetti, C. & Adlof, S. (2012) Reading Comprehension: A Conceptual
Framework from Word Meaning to Text Meaning. In Sabatini, J.P., Albro, E. &
O’Reilly, T. (2012) Measuring Up: Advances in How We Assess Reading
Ability. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.
Schmitt, N., Jiang, X. & Grabe, W. (2011) The Percentage of Words Known in a
Text and Reading Comprehension. The Modern Language Journal, 95, 26-43
Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E. & MacGregor, D.G. (2002) The Affect
Heuristic. In Gilovich, T., Griffin, D., Kahneman, D., eds. Heuristics and Biases:
The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. Boston, MA: Cambridge University
Slovic, P., Finucane, M.L., Peters, E., et al. (2003) Risk as analysis and risk as
feelings: Some thoughts about affect, reason, risk and rationality. Paper
presented at the National Cancer Institute Workshop on Conceptualizing
and Measuring Risk Perceptions, Washington, DC.
Weber, M.T., Mapstone, M., Staskiewicz, J., et al. (2012) Reconciling subjective
memory complaints with objective memory performance in the menopausal
transition. Menopause, (19(7), 735-741.