Situation: Some believe that spelling and punctuation mistakes can contribute to a negative first impression of a person.
In fact: Spelling deficiencies have little effect on judgments of intelligence. Other factors, such as the content or logic of the text, may affect the overall impression.
Tatiana Sysoeva and Svetlana Yaroshevskaya, researchers from the Psychological Institute of the Russian Academy of Education, have found out that mistakes in texts play only a minor role in people’s perceptions of the intelligence of the texts’ writers. The content, form of presentation, and other aspects are much more important. The study was conducted in two stages. It involved 207 respondents, who were given different versions of texts (with and without mistakes) and asked to assess the writers’ intellectual capacities. Such studies are important because communication between people is increasingly done through text messages. The results of the study are published in the latest issue of Psychology, an HSE journal.
Nowadays, people often communicate exclusively by exchanging text information. These can be posts, social media comments, emails, messenger messages, etc. 'Sometimes, written text is the only information available about a person,' the researchers point out.
Psychological research into textual communication focuses mainly on two aspects: the reader's perceptions (content and accuracy) and the characteristics of texts that influence those perceptions. The latter include, for example, the use of different types of words, long and complex sentences, etc. Another frequent focus of analysis are opinions of the writers’ personality — the Big Five personality traits, depressiveness, playfulness, subjective well-being, etc.
Research shows that the presence of spelling mistakes affects people’s perceptions of the writer's intellectual capabilities, mostly in terms of their verbal abilities. Even children are sensitive to this. However, such effects can only be seen if misspellings are frequent.
The impact of textual errors on readers’ perceptions of the writer has not been thoroughly covered in Russian-language scientific literature. The researchers say that their study is part of a research project aimed to make up for this. The study was conducted to clarify how readers form their judgment of a writer’s intelligence.
In the first paper, published in 2019, the researchers tried to identify markers of a writer's limited intelligence. Respondents wrote an essay on any topic of their choosing and were then asked how a similar text written by a less intellectually advanced person would be different. Half of the respondents indicated that there would be mistakes in the text. ‘This immediately comes to mind as an answer to such a question, and in everyday life we are quite often confronted with the fact that the presence of errors spoils our perception of the writer. However, there are many known examples of very clever people being bad spellers,’ the scientists explain.
The researchers decided to conduct an experiment to find out whether misspellings really affect our judgment of how smart a bad speller is. ‘We assumed that this effect does exist and that bad spellers will be perceived by readers as less intelligent,’ the researchers say.
The first stage of the study involved 40 respondents aged 18 to 55 who were predominantly female (85%). The bulk of the sample was people who had completed their studies and were working in different fields, and 25% were students. In the second stage, the sample was expanded to 160 people aged 17 to 63, also predominantly women (88.6%). Most of the sample were students, while 26% had completed their studies.
The researchers used the free-form essays written during the first experiment as the main stimulus material. Eight medium-length texts (seven to ten sentences long) were selected. The texts were written by people with different levels of intelligence as measured by an abridged version of the Adult Intelligence Test (AIT).
Two versions of each text were developed for the study — one without errors and one with two to three spelling errors and one punctuation error. The researchers tried to select typical mistakes made by native speakers that readers may encounter on a regular basis. The mistakes were taken from student papers and blog posts.
The spelling mistakes included incorrect endings of Russian reflective verbs, eg confusion between ‘ться’ and ‘тся’ — ‘мне нравиться вкус’ (‘I like the taste’, where the verb is misspelled) instead of ‘мне нравится вкус' (the same Russian phrase with the verb spelled correctly); incorrectly joined/separated words and particles, eg ‘уехать заграницу’ (‘go abroad’ with the word ‘abroad’ misspelled) instead of ‘уехать за границу’ (the correct spelling of the same Russian phrase); incorrect spellings of root vowels and consonants, eg ‘изберает’ (‘chooses’ misspelled) instead of ‘избирает’, etc. Punctuation errors included superfluous commas, eg 'встает вопрос, о своем самоопределении’ (‘the question of one’s self-determination arises’ with an erroneous comma). The number of mistakes was chosen ‘for a C grade’ in accordance with the recommendations for essay checking in the EGE (Russian Unified State Examination).
Each respondent assessed their perception of the intelligence of each author. Four of the texts were presented without mistakes, while the other four contained some mistakes. The instructions specified that the spelling and punctuation were the writer’s own.
The respondents were then asked to rate the ‘intellect’ and ‘wit’ of each author, using questions on a scale of 1 to 10. The researchers explain why subjects were asked to rate using these two criteria: ‘Although these two words are believed to be synonyms, Russian-speaking respondents tend to regard “intellect” (Russian “интеллект”) as a scientific concept and “wit” (Russian “ум”) as a down-to-earth concept and therefore broader in meaning.’ The researchers explain that similar foreign studies do not usually make this distinction, using only the term ‘intellect’ in their instructions. This is also the case in similar Russian studies. ‘It seems to us that the word “wit” (Russian “ум”) may simply be more understandable and familiar to Russian-speaking respondents. However, the question of the real synonymity of the concepts of “wit” and “intelligence” in everyday understanding remains open,’ the researchers comment.
At the end of the experiment, the respondents were asked expressly whether they had noticed mistakes in certain texts, whether this had affected their evaluation and if so, how.
The study was conducted in a similar way with both groups of respondents. However, in the second case, after consultation with an expert philologist, the researchers decided not to add errors in complex or rare words such as ' миллениалы' (millennials) and 'диссидентство’ (dissidence). An additional phase of the study involving a new group of respondents was needed due to the small size of the first sample and to refine the results. Statistical methods were used to analyse the results.
The researchers note that the study differs from previous foreign studies as it used several different texts written by real people with different mental development test scores.
It turned out that the presence of errors in texts reduces the overall perception of their writers' intelligence. However, the researchers note that the observed effect is weak. The results are consistent with the findings of previous foreign studies. The researchers suggest that this may be due to the fact that the texts did not contain an excessive number of errors, but rather an acceptable number by school assessment standards. Existing evidence confirms that the effect may increase as the number of mistakes grows.
According to the researchers, the presence of errors, if moderate in number, is clearly not the only parameter that influences readers’ perceptions of the writer. This is indirectly confirmed by the much stronger main effect of the ‘author’s quartile on the IQ test’ variable. In other words, writers with higher IQ scores were judged to be cleverer/more intelligent regardless of the presence of misspellings.
The trend emerged most clearly in the second study, although it did not extend to authors in the fourth quartile — the group with the highest intelligence. ‘This curious fact may be due to the specifics of these texts. Over the years of collecting verbal production, we have noticed that participants with high test scores often write humorous or formally detached essays, which subsequently leads to a large variation in readers' evaluation of their texts, and the average scores go down relative to authors from the third quartile,’ the researchers explain.
Thus, the presence of errors is not the main reference point in judging writers’ intelligence and can be outweighed by other features of their writing. This is also confirmed by respondents’ answers, for example: ‘There are extremely intelligent people who make such mistakes in writing. This does not make them unintelligent, but renders them particularly fascinating’ or ‘However, there are exceptions, when a thinking, intellectually developed person makes spelling, syntactical or punctuation mistakes, but they are clear in their thought, touch upon spiritual aspects, know a lot about history, economics, etc.’
The researchers come to the conclusion that although mistakes do have some influence on the perception of authors' wit and intelligence, it is rather weak and probably less significant than other parameters.
The development of information technology means that people communicate by text messages more and more often. Sometimes, it is their only or main form of communication. The researchers note that its prevalence can lead to an increased ‘tolerance’ of spelling mistakes.
However, it is important to understand that the presence of errors can still have an effect on perceptions of the writer. Therefore, it is important to study the mechanisms and characteristics of this effect. The researchers point out that further studies are needed in this area.