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Name That Finding; Devalue Those Results

Giving a name to a difficult concept or nuanced research may make it easier to recall but a new study suggests it may also devalue the results.
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What's in a name? Shakespeare, who came up with such gems as "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Measure for Measure," was well aware of their importance. A clever title makes a work easier to recall, and research has linked that sense of ease with feelings of favorability. We know it, we get it, we like it.

As an associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, Aparna Labroo, is quite aware of this process. So she was puzzled when, while reading through a stack of academic papers, she found herself annoyed by the fact some of her colleagues gave names to their research findings. Often, she discovered, the names oversimplified the results at hand, making her less favorably disposed toward the research.

That got her thinking: Is it possible that naming something sometimes produces a negative result? Does the memorability provided by a moniker come at a price?

In a paper recently published in the journal Psychological Science, she concludes the answer is yes, at least under certain circumstances.

"When people assess their understanding of a finding, feelings of ease reduce the finding's perceived importance," she and her colleagues Soraya Lambotte and Yan Zhang conclude. "This is because people usually invest effort to understand important information, but also mistakenly infer the reverse — namely, that information that requires effort to be understood is important."

In other words, the title of a piece of research can produce a "well, that was obvious" effect that makes the work seem less interesting than it actually is. If the name makes the reseachers' central point instantly understandable, the conclusions come across as less consequential.

"Naming leads to a positive gut reaction (to a work), since it helps it pop into our minds quickly," Labroo said in a recent interview. "But it can also lead to the assumption 'I knew this all along.'"

Labroo conducted a series of experiments in which participants judged the importance of a jury case, a medical condition, a behavioral theory and two math theorems. Some had names attached; others had the names removed. The monikers were not particularly memorable: Examples include "Engel v. Vitale," the "Weierstrass Theorem," and the "Optimal Distinctiveness Theory."

After reading the work in question, half of the study participants were asked to think about how well they understood it, while the others were instructed to evaluate how memorable they considered it. All were then asked to rate how important they considered the work.

"For participants focused on memorability, including a name increased the perceived importance of the finding," the researchers report. "However, for participants focused on understandability, including a name reduced the perceived importance of the finding."

"We found a pretty consistent pattern," Labroo said. "(This pattern) even applied to the math theorems, which had names not associated with anything meaningful in the finding itself."

Labroo's research suggests that, without the sort of priming described above, most of us unconsciously fall into the "memorability" category. This explains why names and the salient clues they provide make us more favorably inclined toward a work. We don't have to thoroughly understand "Hamlet" to recall with pleasure the sword fights and the amusing gravedigger tossing around Yorick's skull.

But there are certain circumstances — such as when a paper is being evaluated — that the backlash effect would likely come into play. In a finding that will be of intense interest to her fellow scholars, Labroo discovered that study participants who read an academic paper with a focus on understanding it had a "reduced willingness to fund the research" if a name was attached.

Nevertheless, Labroo and her colleagues named their findings, calling their paper "The Name-Ease Effect and its Dual Impact on Importance Judgments." They end the work with what she calls "a tongue-in-cheek epilogue," in which they note their reservations about giving it a title and asking readers to guard against the feeling that they knew about this phenomenon all along.

Labroo noted that this research could have public policy implications, in that naming a problem — or a potential solution — can have a great impact on public support for the initiative. The name "global warming," she noted, paints an oversimplified picture of what is happening in the atmosphere, and as such, it may be easy for people to dismiss. "Climate change," she thinks, is better, in that it forces people to think a bit about what it means, which is the first step toward serious discussion of solutions.

In other words, she noted, the term "climate change" takes a bit of effort to comprehend, and "when we are pursuing goals, we usually interpret effort as a signal of value." So while ease of recall may be good for a product name, perhaps policy goals shouldn't be given titles that are too simple or too clever. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but "no child left behind" may be a bit too on-the-nose to inspire action.

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