Jargon May Be Even Worse for Communicating Complexity Than You Thought

padlock on a gate
If your goal in communicating is to lock people out, may we suggest loading your comments with jargon?

Jargon, a specialized language or set of expressions used by a specific group, is by its nature exclusionary, so it’s likely no surprise that scientific, technical or legal jargon may leave outsiders in the cold. A series of studies from researchers at Ohio State University suggests that jargon may turn off people well beyond an offending passage, and that one popular way to soften any harm – using jargon but immediately defining it – may not work.

“The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” Hillary C. Shulman, an assistant professor at OSU’s School of Communication, told her university’s press office. “You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”

And it gets worse. “When you have a difficult time processing the jargon, you start to counter-argue. You don’t like what you’re reading. But when it is easier to read, you are more persuaded and you’re more likely to support these technologies,” Shulman told OSU. With complex issues like climate change, privacy and disinformation online, and political polarization top of mind globally, having a literate population able – and willing – to address these becomes particularly important.

Hillary C. Shulman
Hillary C. Shulman

Shulman and co-authors Graham N. Dixon, Olivia M. Bullock, and Daniel Colón Amill detail their latest findings in this line of research in a new paper, “The Effects of Jargon on Processing Fluency, Self-Perceptions, and Scientific Engagement,” in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. The underlying study draws from experiments with 650 adults who the researchers worked with online on a variety of complicated topics from science and politics.

There is good news, though, and on two fronts. For one, plain talk can have the opposite effect of jargon. “We have found,” Shulman told OSU, “that when you use more colloquial language when talking to people about issues like immigration policy, they report more interest in politics, more ability to understand political information and more confidence in their political opinions.”

And on a more meta level, Shulman and her colleagues’ latest paper has struck a nerve, with a remarkable amount of interest outside of the academic study of communications. This suggests that there’s genuine interest in lowering the barriers that jargon erects and raising public understanding of complex issues.

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd asked Shulman a few questions about jargon, starting with the approach taken in this new paper.

Others have looked at jargon from other perspectives. What led you to use metacognition in your research and how was that novel?

I’ve been doing research on metacognition (“thoughts about thoughts”) for the last couple of years so I approach most of my research questions by trying to figure out how metacognition plays a role. What interested me in this instance was that when jargon is talked about in translational contexts, the question is how “expert language” is received by “non-experts.” In these contexts, the assumption seems to be that non-experts won’t understand these terms and as a result won’t understand the conversation as well as they could. We wanted to examine whether the effects of jargon were a) more subtle, and b) broader than misunderstanding. Our results suggest that this was the case. Even when participants had the ability to get the jargon terms defined (and thus, clear up any misunderstandings), they chose not to.

This suggests to me that the problems of jargon use are not an obvious misunderstand because if this was the case, participants would be motivated to receive jargon term’s definition. I believe that the introduction of metacognition in translational contexts offers a novel explanation for why the negative effects of jargon persist even when these terms are defined.

Scientists I’ve worked with in media trainings often insist that jargon imparts nuance that more conversational terms generally don’t enjoy. While we can always find anecdotes that support this, do you feel this is generally true or more of a crutch to keep using jargon?

Well this depends on the audience. The nuance of jargon can only be captured if the audience is well versed in the subject matter and speaks the same common language. In small settings, this familiarity may be relatively easy to assume, and in these instances, jargon should be used freely. As group size grows, however, and more and more people are exposed to the information, then the assumption that everyone speaks the same language becomes a bit more tenuous. In these instances, the casual use of jargon may be particularly problematic because those who are “new” to the group may be more aware of its usage and particularly self-conscious if they are unable to translate the term.

Can the bad feelings that a lack of understanding creates reduce the incentive to become science literate? If so, which do think came first, too much jargon or too little science literacy?

The evidence from this study would suggest yes.

Interestingly, it is often assumed that characteristics such as “scientific interest,” “scientific knowledge/literacy,” and one’s “identity” are relatively stable traits. Many studies have found that people who report higher levels on these traits are more likely to engage with science (and be more science literate). What our experiment showed was that these traits seem to actually be responsive (at least in the short-term) to the information environment and – as such – these traits actually vary. If we still assume that higher reports on these traits are associated with literacy (or future literacy) than information that leads people to report lower values should, potentially, compromise this literacy moving forward. This is the concern.

As for whether too much jargon or too little science literacy came first, I would definitely say “too much jargon.” Everyone needs to start somewhere and literacy has to be learned. If expert language challenges, or impairs this learning process, then literacy rates will be compromised in the long-term.

We assume that greater scientific literacy and understanding among non-experts is good. But does translating science do damage to science?

I think that examples of when science is damaged from translation are instances when the science was translated poorly. To be more clear, one needs to separate one’s intention, or desire, to translate science from one’s ability to accurately/effectively do so. So, in a sense, no I do not think translating science does damage to science, I think translating science poorly does damage to science. This is why learning how to translate science clearly, accurately, and successfully is so important.

Is some use of jargon intentionally meant to make someone outside the ‘priesthood’ (i.e. that type of person) feel less capable, or perhaps to protect the status the holder of the information?

I think there are some contexts where a cynical person could say yes. A context that comes to mind is politics. In political science, people who are “experts” are called “elites,” and then there is everyone else (“publics”). There are some theories of democracy that suggest that only “elites” should participate (i.e., vote) because their opinions are “better” than the general public. If one were to be cynical, it could be argued that when elites talk about politics, they strategically weigh down political information with jargon terms (e.g., policy names, historical contexts, legal terms). And, when this is the case, less politically knowledgeable publics may disengage. Again, if the end goal was to have only elites participate, then overusing jargon in political discourse would be one strategy to accomplish this goal.

How did your research affect how you approached writing the resulting paper?

Well, this paper was written for an academic audience (and for an academic journal) so – perhaps problematically – I did not think too much about my use of jargon. Instead, I just wrote this journal article in the same conventional way I write other journal articles. That said, the attention received by this paper has really caused me to reflect a bit more on my academic writing. Without thinking too much about it, I probably overuse jargon in my academic writing as a way to signal belonging and – ideally – intelligence to my peers who will be reviewing the paper. But if I were to subscribe to my own advice, I should probably knock it off and try to write my ideas without relying on these esoteric terms. 

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