Answer this quickly: if a toy baseball and bat cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs 100 cents more than the ball, how much does the bat cost?

Derek Thompson uses that question to illustrate a key point in his new book Hit Makers. Thompson, who writes for The Atlantic on economics and the media, investigates the hidden psychology surrounding why we like what we like.

One of his themes is fluency and disfluency. He doesn’t mean the fluency of language, i.e. the ability to process and express information easily, quickly and with expertise. Thompson discusses fluency differently, as the bias towards the familiar.

What does that mean? People gravitate to things that are similar to what they’ve liked before. Think of the latest music, movies, TV or books you love. Odds are, they’re in line with past preferences. That’s human nature.

“Fluency’s attraction is obvious, but people need a bit of its opposite,” writes Thompson. “They want to be forced to think. They enjoy not just a monologue of fluency, but a dialogue between ‘I get it’ and ‘I don’t’ and ‘I want to know more’.”

He suggests that almost every piece of media we consume lives on a continuum between fluency and disfluency. That is, between ease of thinking and difficulty of thinking.

So what are the implications for communicators? There’s nothing wrong with giving audiences what they already like, in a way that’s not challenging to digest. That’s how messages connect. But it’s not the only way.

Thompson argues that disfluent information can also strike a real chord, “like a subtle alarm, piercing the calm of automatic processing, summoning a higher level of attention.”

Which leads back to the math problem I posed at the outset. The question’s phrasing leads people to answer fast, and often incorrectly. Did you conclude that the bat costs $1 and the ball 10 cents? Most people do. But the difference between $1 and 10 cents is 90 cents, not 100 cents. You see where you made the mistake? If you said the bat costs $1.05 and the ball 5 cents, congrats. That’s right.

Here’s the amazing thing. Thompson describes an experiment where the math question was posed in a hard-to-read font. That should make it even tougher. In those cases research subjects were more likely to answer correctly. Why? They had to focus with intent, and thus contemplate more carefully.

Fluency and repetition have their place. We like what we like. But disfluent information can grab the audience at a more profound level. The very lack of familiarity is alluring.

Don’t be wary about challenging audiences. Provide information in a way that compels them to pause and reflect.

To sell products, services and ideas, it’s okay for narratives to be familiar. However, information that makes the audience work a little, that surprises them or makes them slow down and think, can forge a powerful connection too.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

April 5, 2017

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