Reading Cognition

by F.

Gerald Grow is a Professor of Journalism at Florida A&M and has posted some wonderful information on writing here.

In one of his articles, he describes 5 ways we might process a piece of writing, such as a magazine article:

  1. Accretion
  2. Tuning
  3. Restructuring
  4. Dissonance
  5. Confirmation

1. Accretion (or assimilation)

adds new content to a pattern the reader already knows. Asks the reader to recall a known pattern and learn a new instance of it. “Here are more details in a story you are already familiar with.” Or, “This commentary interprets recent events in the Middle East.”

I would imagine most war stories are like this—A attacks B, B retaliates, yadda yadda yadda.

2. Tuning (or accommodation)

changes the way reader knows something. Asks reader to recall a pattern and modify it. “The story has changed.”

I imagine this is something like, “We thought global warming was caused by X. But it turns out it is caused by X and Y.”

3. Restructuring

adds a new way of knowing. Asks reader to learn, remember, and use a new way of organizing knowledge. “This story requires a new way of thinking.”

I suspect that a paradigm case of restructuring is a new theory—the germ theory of disease or a neuroscientific explanation of why we think bunny rabbits are cute.

4. Dissonance

challeges reader’s view. Asks reader to recall a familiar pattern and accept an inexplicable instance that does not fit that pattern. “What happened is clear, but we do not know what it means.”

I would guess that this is rare: people don’t want to hear dissonant information, generally. But stories often start this way: “Scientists thought no worms had legs, but then they discovered the Giant Jumping Worm in Madagascar, which doesn’t seem to fit the ‘no-leg’ pattern. But is it a worm? Or is it a new kind of bunny rabbit?” The rest of the piece would go on to describe how either the (a) theory is emended or the (b) data is assimilated.

5. Confirmation

[a]sks reader to recall a pattern and recognize that it has been validated. Sometimes the pattern undergoes an apparent challenge before finally being confirmed. The vast bulk of all communication consists of confirmation; it is the background of the “familiar” against which the “new” stands out. For any story to communicate what is “new,” it must first confirm a the knowledge shared between writer and reader. If too much is new, or too little is confirmed, the communication can become overly complex. Much entertainment seems to be based on a formula of challenging shared assumptions, then, in the end, confirming them.

I think much celebrity journalism fits this last pattern: glancing through the Star at the checkout stand, we think, “I knew Jessica would leave him!” Or “I had a feeling Katie would murder the baby!” Having your views confirmed feels good.

Useful categories, I think. One way to visualize them—not exactly the same, but close: