Study Shows that Complex Copy & Graphics Often Backfire

K*I*S*S — “Keep It Simple, Stupid” — long have been watchwords in direct mail. Now, research by Daniel M. Oppenheimer, a Princeton University psychologist, shows scientifically that texts using hifalutin language and unusual graphics actually diminish the reader’s perception of the writer’s intelligence and, by extension, the value of paying attention to his offer.

  • Oppenheimer, then at Stanford, polled 110 undergraduates and found that a vast majority purposely used million-dollar words in their papers. For example, 86.4% of the students “made their writing more complex in order to give the impression that the content is more valid or intelligent.”

  • The psychologist modified six brief essays, used in admission applications for graduate school, to make their language more complex.

  • Every participant was told to read the text, then decide whether he would accept the writer as a graduate student. Also, participants rated how hard it was to understand their assigned essays and their confidence in their admission decisions on a seven-point scale.

  • The experiment’s results, Oppenheimer writes, showed that “increasing the complexity of a text does not cause an essay’s author to seem more intelligent. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.”

  • In his second experiment, Oppenheimer gave students more or less complicated English translations of a passage in French by René Descartes. “Once again,” he writes, “complexity negatively influenced raters’ assessment” of the writer’s intelligence, regardless of prior expectations.

  • Oppenheimer next experimented with a simplified writing sample. His results showed that readers of the simplified text rated the writer “more intelligent” than recipients of the corresponding undoctored version.

  • Having determined that overly complicated language reduces reader perception of the writer’s braininess, and vice-versa, Oppenheimer presented his panelists with the same text panel, but in a type font difficult to read. He found that readers of the hard-to-read copy perceived the writer as less intelligent than those who worked with the original text. Oppenheimer concludes, “The pundits are likely right: write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.”

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