Imagine the horrifying paralysis of trying to write a novel on a platform where the whole world has real-time access to each page. Critics brutalized the most famous novels of the twentieth century. The Great Gatsby came out to awful reviews— “unimportant,” “painfully forced,” “a dud”—and weak sales. Virginia Woolf called James Joyce’s Ulysses “a memorable catastrophe— immense in daring, terrific in disaster.” If novelists had perfect foresight of how the public would greet their work, they might never lift a quill or tap a keyboard.
If there is a dark side to fluency, might there be a bright side to its opposite, disfluency? Alter’s work suggests there might be. In one of his studies, he printed a simple, easy-to-read question: “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?” Many respondents said two. But when the question was printed in a harder-to-read font, respondents were 35 percent more likely to recognize that it was Noah, not Moses, who built the ark. The less legible font made people more careful readers.
My favorite example of this gap between the behavioral self and the aspirational self has nothing to do with reading, but usefully extends the foodie metaphor beyond doughnuts. In the early to mid-2000s, McDonald’s got more aggressive about promoting healthy options like salad and fruit on its menus. But its revenue growth in those years was due entirely to people eating more greasy fare, like cheeseburgers and fried chicken. New healthy options seemed to lure wannabe dieters into the restaurant, where they would order fast-food basics. In 2010, a group of wordsmithing Duke University researchers called this phenomenon “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Merely considering something that’s “good for you” satisfies a goal and grants license to indulge. People say they want hard news in their social media feeds, but mostly click on funny photos. People say they want to eat greens, but mostly order greasy sandwiches at salad-serving restaurants. People aren’t lying— they do want to be the sort of person who reads news! They do want to see salad options!—but mere proximity to good behavior satisfies their interest in behaving well.
Max Planck, the theoretical physicist who helped lay the groundwork for quantum theory, said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”