The sequence of the letters influences whether people deem a claim to be true or false


People today constantly encounter claims such as “Advil kills pain,” “coffee prevents depression,” or “Hilary promises amnesty” as brands, news outlets and social media sites vie for our attention – yet few people take the time to investigate whether these statements are true.

Researchers have now uncovered one of the subtle psychological variables that influences whether people deem a claim to be true or false: the sequence of the letters.

Based on previous literature, the researchers knew that the brain attempts to organize information in ways that follow familiar patterns and sequences.

One of the most universal, well-known patterns is the alphabet, and the investigators suspected that claims with first letters conforming to the arbitrary “ABCD” sequence – such as Andrenogel Increases Testosterone – would be perceived as more truthful.

The study is available online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

“We go about our lives looking for natural sequences, and when we find a match to one of these patterns, it feels right,” says study author Dan King, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

“An embedded alphabetic sequence, even if unconsciously perceived, feels like a safe haven, and our brains can make unconscious judgments that cause-and-effect statements following this pattern are true.”

To test this “symbolic sequence effect,” the researchers conducted an experiment in which one group of participants read 10 claims that followed the natural alphabetic sequence, such as “Befferil Eases Pain” or “Aspen Moisturizes Skin,” and the control group read statements that did not conform to alphabetical order, such as “Vufferil Eases Pain” or “Vaspen Moisturizes Skin.”

Then both groups rated their estimation of the truthfulness of the claims. The truthfulness ratings were significantly higher for the claims that followed an alphabetical order, even if participants could not attribute the source of the feeling of truthfulness.

Then the researchers tested whether they could temporarily alter the brain’s pattern recognition process and consequently influence an individual’s perception of a claim’s truthfulness.

In this experiment, one group of participants watched a short video clip of the alphabet sung normally while another group saw the clip with the ABC song sung in reverse order. Later, the groups rated the truthfulness of 10 claims.

The truthfulness ratings for claims following the reversed alphabetical sequence—such as “Uccuprin Strengthens Heart” – were higher for participants who had heard the alphabet sung in reverse.

The finding suggests that companies may be more likely to convince consumers that a slogan or claim is true if the causal statement follows an alphabetical order, King says.

The more frightening implication, though, relates to fake news. Headlines with cause-effect statements that are in alphabetical order may feel more true, even if they are not.

“Consumers need to make evaluations based on fact or experimental evidence rather than whether something feels right,” says King.

“The alphabet is a random, arbitrary sequence we have learned, and it can play tricks on the brain when it comes to making judgments.”

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Or rather…

According to a researcher (sic) at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole.

This text circulated on the internet in September 2003. I first became aware of it when a journalist contacted a my colleague Sian Miller on 16th September, trying to track down the original source. It’s been passed on many times, and in the way of most internet memes has mutated along the way. It struck me as interesting – especially when I received a version that mentioned Cambridge University! I work at Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, in Cambridge, UK, a Medical Research Council unit that includes a large group investigating how the brain processes language. If there’s a new piece of research on reading that’s been conducted in Cambridge, I thought I should have heard of it before…

I’ve written this page, to try to explain the science behind this meme. There are elements of truth in this, but also some things which scientists studying the psychology of language (psycholinguists) know to be incorrect. Most strikingly, a recent paper showed an 11% slowing when people read words with reordered internal letters:

Raeding Wrods With Jubmled Lettres There Is a Cost
Keith Rayner, Sarah J. White, Rebecca L. Johnson, and Simon P. Liversedge
Psychological Science, 17(3), 192-193

At the same time, though, people are quite often unaware of these misspellings, and the 11% cost is smaller than would be observed for replacing letters, or for changing the order of external letters. So, the meme has some elements of truth in it, but is false in its entirety.

I’m going to break down the meme, one line at a time to illustrate these points, pointing out what I think is the relevant research on the role of letter order on reading. Again, this is only my view of the current state of reading research, as it relates to this meme. If you think I’ve missed something important, let me know [[email protected]?subject=subject%3DCmabrigde].

Psycholinguistic evidence on scrambled letters in reading

1) aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy… According to a research (sic) at Cambridge University

There are a number of groups in Cambridge, UK doing research on language. There is the group where I work (Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), there are also groups in the Department of Experimental Psychology most notably the Centre for Speech and Language (where I used to work). There are also language researchers in Phonetics, the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics, and at Anglia Ruskin University.

To my knowledge, there’s no-one in Cambridge UK who is currently doing research on this topic. There may be people in Cambridge, MA, USA who are responsible for this research, but I don’t know of them. If you know different, please let me know [[email protected]?subject=Cmabrigde].


I’ve found a www page that tracked down the original demonstration of the effect of letter randomisation to Graham Rawlinson. Graham wrote a letter to New Scientist in 1999 (in response to a paper by Saberi & Perrot (Nature, 1999) on the effect of reversing short chunks of speech). In it Graham says:

This reminds me of my PhD at Nottingham University (1976), which showed that randomising letters in the middle of words had little or no effect on the ability of skilled readers to understand the text. Indeed one rapid reader noticed only four or five errors in an A4 page of muddled text.

It’s possible that with the publicity offered by the internet, that Dr. Rawlinson’s research might be more widely read in future. For those wanting to cite this in their own research the full reference is:

Rawlinson, G. E. (1976) The significance of letter position in word recognition. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Psychology Department, University of Nottingham, Nottingham UK.

Update 2:

Graham has very kindly sent me a summary of his thesis work.

2) it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae… it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place

This is clearly wrong. For instance, compare the following three sentences:

1) A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont near the UN haduqertares in Bagahdd on Mnoday kilinlg the bmober and an Irqai polcie offceir

2) Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs

3) A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur

All three sentences were randomised according to the “rules” described in the meme. The first and last letters have stayed in the same place and all the other letters have been moved. However, I suspect that your experience is the same as mine, which is that the texts get progressively more difficult to read. If you get stuck, the original sentences are pasted at the bottom of this article.

Hopefully, these demonstrations will have convinced you that in some cases it can be very difficult to make sense of sentences with jumbled up words. Clearly, the first and last letter is not the only thing that you use when reading text. If this really was the case, how would you tell the difference between pairs of words like “salt” and “slat”?

I’m going to list some of the ways in which I think that the author(s) of this meme might have manipulated the jumbled text to make it relatively easy to read. This will also serve to list the factors that we think might be important in determining the ease or difficulty of reading jumbled text in general.

There is still a very real debate in the psychology of reading, however, about exactly what information we do use when reading. I don’t know how much of this literature Dr. Rawlinson was aware of at the time of his thesis, but I do think that the jumbled text provides a neat illustration of some of the sources of information that we now think are important. I’m going to review some of the research that has been done to demonstrate this.

3) the rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm… the rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without problem

This sentence is, like the rest of the demonstration, strikingly easy to read despite being jumbled. As you have seen above, not all sentences distorted in the same way are as easy as this to read. What is it that makes this sentence so easy? My colleagues and I have suggested the following properties:

1) Short words are easy – 2 or 3 letter words don’t change at all. The only change that is possible in a 4 letter words is to swap the order of the middle letters which doesn’t cause too much difficulty (see 4).

2) Function words (the, be, and, you etc.) stay the same – mostly because they are short words, see (1). This really helps the reader by preserving the grammatical structure of the original, helping you to work out what word is likely to come next. This is especially crucial for reading jumbled text – words that are predictable are going to be easier to read in this situation.

3) Of the 15 words in this sentence, there are 8 that are still in the correct order. However, as a reader you might not notice this since many of the words that remain intact are function words, which readers don’t tend to notice when reading. For instance, when people are asked to detect individual letters in a sentence, they are more likely to miss letters in function words.

Healy, A. F. (1976). Detection errors on the word The: Evidence for reading units larger than letters. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 2, 235-242.

4) Transpositions of adjacent letters (e.g. porbelm for problem) are easier to read than more distant transpositions (e.g. pborlem). We know from research in which people read words presented very briefly on a computer screen that the exterior letters of words are easier to detect than middle letters – confirming one of the ideas present in the meme. We also know that position information for letters in the middle of words is more difficult to detect and that those errors that are made tend to be transpositions.

McCusker, L. X., Gough, P. B., Bias, R. G. (1981) Word recognition inside out and outside in. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 7(3), 538-551.

One explanation of this property of the reading system is that it results from the fact that the position of an exterior letter is less easily confused with adjacent letters. There is only direction in which an exterior letter can move, and there are fewer adjacent letters to ‘mask’ an exterior letter. Both of these properties emerge very naturally from a neural network model in which letters are identified at different positions in an artifical retina.

Shillcock, R., Ellison, T.M. & Monaghan, P. (2000). Eye-fixation behaviour, lexical storage and visual word recognition in a split processing model.Psychological Review 107, 824-851.

The account proposed by Richard Shillcock and colleagues, also suggests another mechanism that could be at work in the meme. They propose a model of word recognition in which each word is split in half since the information at the retina is split between the two hemispheres of the brain when we read. In some of the simulations of their model, Richard Shillcock simulates the effect of jumbling letters in each half of the word. It seems that keeping letters in the appropriate half of the word, reduces the difficulty of reading jumbled text. This approach was used in generating example (1) above, but not for (2) or (3).

5) None of the words that have reordered letters create another word (wouthit vs witohut). We know from existing work, that words that can be confused by swapping interior letters (e.g. salt and slat) are more difficult to read. To make an easy to read jumbled word you should therefore avoid making other words.

Andrews, S (1996) Lexical retrieval and selection processes: Effects of transposed-letter confusability. Journal of Memory and Language, 35(6), 775-800.

6) Transpositions were used that preseve the sound of the original word (e.g. toatl vs ttaol for total). This will assist in reading, since we often attend to the sound of the words even when reading for meaning:

Van-Orden, G. C. (1987) A ROWS is a ROSE: Spelling, sound, and reading. Memory and Cognition, 15(3), 181-198.

7) The text is reasonably predictable. For instance, given the first few words of the sentence, you can guess what words are coming next (even with very little information from the letters in the word). We know that context plays an important role in understanding speech that is distorted or presented in noise, the same is probably true for written text that has been jumbled:

Miller, G. A., Heise, G. A., & Lichten, W. (1951). The intelligibility of speech as a function of the context of the test materials. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 41, 329-335.

4) Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe… This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself by the word as a whole.

There are two ideas that are being suggested in this sentence. Essentially, the author is correct, people do not ordinarily read each letter in a word individually – except in a relatively rare condition following brain injury known as letter-by-letter reading, as described in the following:

Warrington, E.K., & Shallice, T. (1980). Word-form dyslexia. Brain, 103, 99–112.

There is also evidence to suggest that information in the shape of an entire word plays an important role in reading. For instance, “CaSe MiXiNg” substantially slows down reading:

Mayall, K., Humphreys, G.W., & Olson, A. (1997). Disruption to word or letter processing? The origins of case-mixing effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 23, 1275–1286.

However, since “word shape” includes information on the position of internal letters (especially where they contain ascending and descending elements), word shape will be disrupted by transpositions.

Following brief presentations of written words, people are often better at guessing what word they saw, rather than guessing individual letters in that word (the “Word Superiority Effect”):

Reicher, G. M. (1969) Perceptual recognition as a function of meaningfulness of stimulus material. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 81(2), 275-280.

However, this demonstration does not imply that reading does not involve any process that occurs at the level of individual letters. A recent paper in Nature presents a new piece of evidence for letter-level processes in word reading:

Pelli, D. G., Farell, B., Moore, D.C. (2003) The remarkable inefficiency of word recognition, Nature, 423, 752-756.

In this paper, Pelli and colleagues show that when reading words that have been distorted by presenting each letter in visual noise (like an out of tune television), readers do not perform as well as an ‘ideal observer’ who can recognise words based on their shape alone. Instead, their participants only perform as well as they could if they were recognising words based on their individual letters.

Clearly, the debate about whether we read using information from individual letters or from whole words is far from over. Demonstrations of the ease or difficulty of reading jumbled texts seem likely to play an important role in our understanding of this process. For instance:

Perea, M., & Lupker, S. J. (2003). Does jugde activate COURT? Transposed-letter confusability effects in masked associative priming. Memory and Cognition.

Another extremely relevant paper that just caught my eye is this:

Perea, M., & Lupker, S. J. (2003). Transposed-letter confusability effects in masked form priming. In S. Kinoshita and S. J. Lupker (Eds.), Masked priming: State of the art (pp. 97-120). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

What Perea and Lupker did was to present words for lexical decision (is this a real word?) and measure response times to press one of two buttons (yes/no). These target words are preceeded by very brief presentations (50msec) of another letter string, which is masked, and so invisible to participants. However, the influence of this masked word can be shown on response times. For instance, response times are faster if USHER is preceded by “uhser” than if preceded by “ushre”. That is, middle letter transpositions “prime” a neighbouring word more than extrerior letter transpositions. The same phenomenon that is at the heart of the earlier demonstration.

I would be grateful for any comments and suggestions that people have on this page, whatever your level of expertise. I will try to update this page with more information on the internet meme, and on related work on reading, if people are interested. Maybe one day, there will be a group of researchers at Cambridge University who will make a scientific break-through by studying the reading of jumbled text…

More information: Dan King et al, Symbolic Sequence Effects on Consumers’ Judgments of Truth for Brand Claims, Journal of Consumer Psychology (2019). DOI: 10.1002/jcpy.1132

Journal information: Journal of Consumer Psychology
Provided by Society for Consumer Psychology


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