Bold and Italicize Your Way to a Better Memory

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Let’s say I were writing a book about the norgletti, a fictional extraterrestrial species, and had the choice of these four typefaces. If I asked you which one would make your reading experience most pleasurable, the choice would be obvious. The first three fonts are brash, clumsy, juvenile and just plain difficult to read.

What if I didn’t care about the ease with which you flipped through my book, but with the amount of information you retained from it? In that case, the fourth option is actually the worst choice, according to a new study.

Attempting to reconstruct a biological taxonomy lesson, the researchers asked 28 adult volunteers to learn about the norgletti and two other kinds of aliens, each of which had seven features. The participants saw these characteristics listed in either gray, obnoxious Comic Sans MS, or gray, delicate Bodoni MT, or black, clear-as-day Arial font, and had 90 seconds to memorize the lists. They were distracted for 15 minutes, and then tested on their retention with questions such as What color eyes does the norgletti have?

The volunteers who learned the information in Arial answered 73 percent of the questions correctly, whereas those who read it in hard-to-read fonts had 87 percent accuracy. (There was no difference between the two annoying fonts.)

The results have enormous implications for education. But would this font-switching strategy do any good in a real classroom?

In a second experiment, the team changed the fonts of PowerPoint slides and classroom handouts for a variety of classes taken by 222 high school students. For up to a month, some students received the materials in italicized Comic Sans, some in Haettenschweiler and some in Monotype Corsiva — all of which are difficult to read. (In fact, one teacher refused to pass out the materials in Haettenschweiler.)

Students who had received the ugly handouts scored higher on tests of the material than did their peers who had used normal type. This happened in every subject tested — chemistry, English, history and physics.

The researchers propose that when we see an illegible font, our brains have to ramp up their processing power in order to read it. We have to concentrate more, and this helps with memory.

I’m certainly impressed, and already trying to figure out how I can read scientific manuscripts in Comic Sans. I might suggest to other LWONers that we change the blog’s font, too, except I’m afraid of anti-Comic Sans wrath…

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This research was led by Danny Oppenheimer at Princeton University and appears in the January 2011 issue of Cognition.

The Comic Sans photo is used with permission from passive-aggressive notes.

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing