When Disfluency Signals Competence


Firms usually strive to provide consumers with simple, easy to process information about their offerings on the assumption that clarity is a principle of persuasive advertising. However, in select situations, making information more difficult to process may be beneficial to a firm. This is because research on processing fluency shows that consumers misinterpret the difficulty of processing task relevant information as indicative of the amount of effort and skill required to perform the task, and hence become less willing to complete it. Debora Thompson and Elise Chandon Ince considered how this effect can be leveraged in marketing contexts.

For instance, in service domains consumers hire agents to perform tasks that they are unable or unwilling to perform themselves. In light of this, Thompson and her colleague studied whether experienced processing difficulty (referred to here as disfluency) by consumers is an indicator that their service agent exerts greater effort and possesses greater competence. If so, the presence of a moderate level of task information disfluency may be desirable to firms when consumers consider the value of their service agents and in turn, enhance consumers’ motivation to hire target agents. The lay belief underlying consumers’ inferences is that people who perform more challenging tasks are expected to be more skilled and, consequently, worth more.


To investigate the role of disfluency on consumer perceptions of value Thompson and her colleague manipulated the visual fluency of agent and service descriptions. To manipulate fluency, service descriptions were presented in basic text or formatted text for the fluent and disfluent conditions, respectively. The researchers began by showing that disfluent service information induced decreased likability of a potential agent, but more importantly, increased perceived value of the agent (measured as hiring intention and agent competence). They replicated this result when manipulating agent name: an uncommon or disfluent agent name decreased likability but increased value (willingness to pay), relative to a common or fluent agent name.

Thompson and her colleague continued by demonstrating constraints to the effect of information disfluency and extending the finding to an actual consumer decision. In the study, consumers assessed the value of a social media information session. In addition to controlling the fluency of the session description, the study highlighted the age of the session leader. (Research has consistently shown a significant age bias in which younger professionals are perceived more competent than older peers.) When the session was offered with the younger (assumed highly competent) leader, information fluency significantly impacted perceived value of the social media session, that is, disfluent session information resulted in increased perceived value (see the figure). When the session was offered with an older (assumed less competent) leader, the effect of information fluency reversed.

Thomson and her colleague posit that assumptions regarding the general incompetence of the older leader prevented information disfluency from causing consumers to infer that the agent possessed greater competence and effort. Additionally, in order to extend the findings of the study to actual decisions, consumers were given the option to provide their email for attendance of the social media session. Consumer’s likelihood of providing their email echoed perceptions of value, suggesting information fluency impacts actual decisions. 2


Taken together, the results suggest that creating situations in which consumers need to exert more effort to process information can be beneficial, particularly in settings when the production and delivery of a service are separable and employee effort is removed from a customer’s experience. Changes in font (e.g. typeface, size, background contrast), vocabulary, and sentence complexity (e.g. sentence and word length, language conventionality and clarity) can be applied to written and oral communications to boost perceptions of employee effort and technical competence.

While companies should avoid over-complicating the description of their offerings, slightly increasing the vocabulary complexity used in job titles, staff credentials or descriptions of the process behind the generation of a particular deliverable can amplify perceptions of service value. In addition, the authors provide initial evidence about conditions that attenuate the disfluency-competence link. They show that the positive effect of disfluency is mitigated by competing cues signaling agent incompetence, such as age stereotypes. Finally, it is possible that the positive effect of disfluency on perceptions of service value can be mitigated, and may even backfire after a consumption experience. This is because heightened expectations caused by disfluency may increase the bar for service delivery to unobtainable levels.

Debora Thompson

Associate Professor

Debora V. Thompson is Associate Professor of Marketing at the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University. She earned a PhD in Marketing from the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Her research interests focus on consumers’ judgment and decision making, information processing, and persuasion. Professor Thompson uses psychological principles to predict how consumers form preferences and recommend effective marketing strategies. Her research on how consumers balance their desire for product capability and ease of use has won several awards given by the American Marketing Association, including the Howard Dissertation Award and the Donald Lehmann Award for best dissertation-based paper published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

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