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Writing Tip: Use “More Than” More Than “Less Than”

 

Let’s say you’re a writer, and you’re reporting on the gender pay gap. Which of these sounds more credible?

Men make more money per year than women.

Women make less money per year than men.

Logically, those two statements are equivalent, but new research suggests that the first one is more believable. When we think comparatively, we tend to focus on which side has more, and it can take just a few more seconds to understand what’s going on when someone first focuses us on which side has less.

This isn’t just about making more money. It’s about comparisons of many kinds. If I say, “kids are more playful than adults,” we all know what I’m saying, but it takes just a tiny bit more mental work to understand “adults are less playful than kids.”

People Use “More Than” in Writing

books-441866_640If you take a quick look at Google Ngram, you’ll see that between 1800 – 2000, the phrase “more than” appears about six times more often than the phrase “less than.” [1]For another cool use of Google Ngram to answer social psychological questions, check out this recent post on why some expressions get super popular.

There are many reasons why printed material would include one phrase more than another, however, and to find out whether people would spontaneously use one form of comparison over the other, Vera Hoorens and Susanne Bruckmüller simply asked people to write about differences between men and women. It was very open; people could respond however they wanted to.

When it comes to comparing two groups, people could either frame things in “more than” or “less than” terms. Let’s say someone believes that talkativeness differs by gender. That person could say “men are less talkative than women” or that “women are more talkative than men.”  It means the same, so do people use them equally?

Nope.

Their data showed 83% of comparisons were made using “more than” language. That’s a clear preference! Also, it didn’t matter what kind of comparison they were making. In other words, whether it was a good or a bad thing to have “more” of some characteristic, people still preferred to express the comparison using “more than.”

People Trust “More Than”

So it’s clear that people will opt for “more than” language when they’re drawing comparisons, but research on fluency would predict much more. Research in the past has shown that we believe a statement more when it’s easier to read it. For example, in one study, people believed an aphorism more when it rhymed (“woes unite foes”) than when it didn’t rhyme (“woes unite enemies”). The same is true when something is just printed more clearly (vs. being harder to read).

(You can learn more about fluency in Quickly Understand People with 15 Amazing Psychology Studies)

To see whether “more than” works in the same way, Hoorens and Bruckmüller gave people a list of statements comparing young and old people and asked them to rate how much they agreed with each one. For one random half of the participants, though, they framed the statements in “more than” language and for the other half, they framed the same statements in “less than” language.

Someone in the “more than” condition might see something like this:

morethan02

Someone in the “less than” condition, however, would see this version:

morethan01

Everyone indicated their agreement for around 100 of these statements, and when you average their responses, the people who saw “more than” statements rated higher levels of agreement[2]Like the previous study, the researchers were careful to show that this wasn’t just a case of the favorability of the statements. Across a range of statements, some of which were stereotype-consistent and some of which were not, people still agreed more when it was written with the “more than” structure. Even though the meaning of both statements is identical, something about the “more than” structure signals truth.

Speaking of truth, another of their studies gave people a mini quiz about gender differences and asked them make “true” or “false” judgments. As you might expect by now, regardless of the real truth of a statement, people were more like to call “true!” when it was a “more than” comparison than when it was a “less than” comparison.[3]Or should I say “they were less likely to call “true!” when it was a “less than” comparison than when it was a “more than” comparison”? No, I shouldn’t. Haven’t you been reading this?

People Like “More Than”

less-is-more-791109_640Another thing that fluency can do is increase liking. On average, people tend to like things more when they’re easier to process. Take pop music, for example. One reason why so many successful pop songs are so catchy is that they’re so simple. Similarly, people think images are prettier when they depict a figure in stark contrast against a background, compared to when the contrast is low.

Hoorens and Bruckmüller wondered whether “more than” structures would do the same thing. They showed people an article about two fake medications, “Xylon” and “Medovan.” In it, the author compares the drugs, pointing out both the strengths and the weaknesses (i.e., side effects) of each.

As you may have guessed, some people saw a version of the article written in “more than” language (e.g., “Xylon is more effective against headaches than Medovan”) and some saw a version written in “less than” language (e.g., “Meodvan is less effective against headaches than Xylon”).

After reading, people who read “more than” comparisons liked the article more and also thought the author liked both medications more. Again, the actual information didn’t change, just the framing.

Writing Tip: Putting it to Use as a Writer

Lucky for you, you’re probably already using “more than” comparisons because as we’ve seen, that tends to be more common anyway. Even so, when you express a comparison that could be framed as a “more than” or a “less than” comparison, pay careful attention to your strategy.

To increase credibility, stick with “more than,” but if you’re aim is to cast doubt on an opponent’s claim, then you might just frame it as a “less than.” After all, you want a competitor’s claims to seem less credible than your own…or should that be the other way around?


 

This post is part of New Research Friday: Each Friday, we aim to bring new research in social psychology to the blog, highlighting information revealed in studies that have only recently been published.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. For another cool use of Google Ngram to answer social psychological questions, check out this recent post on why some expressions get super popular.
2. Like the previous study, the researchers were careful to show that this wasn’t just a case of the favorability of the statements. Across a range of statements, some of which were stereotype-consistent and some of which were not, people still agreed more when it was written with the “more than” structure.
3. Or should I say “they were less likely to call “true!” when it was a “less than” comparison than when it was a “more than” comparison”? No, I shouldn’t. Haven’t you been reading this?

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