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Are Some Fonts More Believable Than Others?

Recently, Errol Morris pulled a covert experiment on readers of The New York Times. The result? Typefaces can sway your beliefs.

Are some fonts more believable than others? A curious experiment by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris suggests as much. After polling approximately 45,000 unsuspecting readers on nytimes.com, Morris discovered that subjects were more likely to believe a statement when it was written in Baskerville than when it was written in Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Trebuchet, or Comic Sans. Baskerville: truth’s favorite typeface?

Let’s look at how Morris got here: A frequent contributor to the New York Times’s Opinionator blog, Morris encouraged readers to peruse a passage from The Beginning of Infinity, by physicist David Deutsch, on the unlikelihood that Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid. Then, he asked them to take a survey on whether they thought Deutsch’s statement was true, and how confident they felt in that conclusion. "Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?" the post’s headline read.

But the poll was a cover—a ruse to get at the real question, how does typography influence our perception of truth? Morris tapped animator Benjamin Berman to develop a program that altered the typeface of the Deutsch passage, such that it appeared to each reader in one of the six randomly assigned typefaces mentioned above. Cornell psychology professor David Dunning helped design the test.

The results: For every 1,000 respondents, almost five more people agreed with Deutsch’s statement when it was written in Baskerville than they did when it was written in Helvetica. That might not seem terribly impressive, but Dunning assures us that this so-called Baskerville Effect is indeed statistically significant:

It’s small, but it’s about a 1% to 2% difference — 1.5% to be exact, which may seem small but to me is rather large. You are collecting these data in an uncontrolled environment (who knows, for example just how each person’s computer is rendering each font, how large the font is, is it on an iPad or iPhone, laptop or desktop), are their kids breaking furniture in the background, etc. So to see any difference is impressive. Many online marketers would kill for a 2% advantage either in more clicks or more clicks leading to sales.

What makes Baskerville so convincing? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the typeface has, as Morris wonders, a sort of "religious pull" that tugs at something fundamental within us. Or maybe we’re just trained to accept some typefaces as more authoritative than others; perhaps Baskerville was the favored typeface of our childhood textbooks. Whatever the answer, Morris worries about the power of type’s invisible hand:

Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true. Could it swing an election? Induce us to buy a new dinette set? Change some of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs? Indeed, we may be at the mercy of typefaces in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize. An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutably there. ("Mommy, Mommy, the typeface made me do it.")

It’d be fascinating for researchers to repeat the experiment on a larger scale, enlisting all the major fonts scattered around media today. Who knows how Baskerville would compare with Verdana or Times New Roman? It’s time we get to know our fonts better. Baskerville, stentorian and soberminded Baskerville, is a grave-faced TV anchor reading the news. Comic Sans is our gossipy idiot cousin. Morris has zeroed in on something we all implicitly knew: Typefaces have personality.