The lazy reader

Do you know the bat and the ball puzzle? It’s quite simple:

A bat and a ball cost €1.10

The bat costs one euro more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

Do you have the answer?

Most people say 10 cent. It’s obvious.

It’s also wrong (the correct answer is 5 cent).

In his excellent book Thinking fast and slowthe Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann uses this puzzle to show how we humans think in two systems:

System 1 is the intuitive system.

Here are two questions that you will answer in System 1:

What is the capital of France?


What is 2+2?

Both answers shoot up just like that, right? No effort needed.

Not so System 2

System 2 is different. It is not intuitive. It’s about deeper thinking.

Here a question that you need to answer in System 2:

What’s 37 x 48?

Did you calculate it?

I bet you didn’t.

Not because you can’t. You just weren’t bothered.

Moving into System 2 is something we don’t like to do. We have to overcome a resistance and if there’s no good reason, we won’t.

Built into our system

It’s the same with the bat and ball problem: if you gave the wrong answer, it’s not because you couldn’t find the right answer.

You just didn’t want to look for it.

You weren’t bothered to move into System 2. As Kahneman says: “Laziness is built deep into our system.”

You probably guessed where I am headed with this:

We like to read your text in System 1.

We like to watch your presentation in System 1.

We like to listen to your speech in System 1.

Nobody likes to move into System 2. In other words: you lose a good part of your audience every time you force people out of System 1.

Where and when?

So you have to keep people in System 1.

For texts, this is particularly difficult. We can’t be sure where and when people read.

What time will it be?

Will the reader be tired or wide awake?


Why is it that we can read the text on billboards at the roadside?

Because the designer knows that we read from far away. And driving! He has to use  super big letters and short words. It’s the only way to keep us in System 1.

Billboard-designers are lucky. They know our circumstance.

With most texts, we are not so lucky. It only makes it more important that we keep our audience in mind:

When and where may people read your text?

What mood might they be in?

What will they need to stay in System 1?

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