Plain Language to Minimize Cognitive Load: A Social Justice Perspective

Peer reviewed: 
Yes, item is peer reviewed.
Scholarly level: 
Graduate student (PhD)
Final version published as: 

Cheung, I. W. (2017). Plain language to minimize cognitive load: A social justice perspective. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 60(4), 448-457. DOI: 10.1109/TPC.2017.2759639

Date created: 
Cognitive load theory
Intersectional theory
Marginalized populations
Mental burden
Plain language
Social justice

This tutorial explores ethical implications of cognitive load theory and intersectional theory on technical and professional communication, and proposes plain language as an ethical imperative to redress social inequities. Key concepts: When the cognitive load of a learning task is too high and overwhelms working memory, learning is impaired. The greater stress and mental burden that marginalized populations experience can leave less working memory available for reading and learning. Using plain language to reduce cognitive load can be considered a political act that increases marginalized populations' opportunities to understand. Key lessons: 1. Consider whether marginalized populations are part of your audience. 2. Using personas to represent those populations, audit their mental burden to exercise cognitive empathy. 3. Consider reducing cognitive load via plain language an ethical imperative. Implications for practice: Assessing the presence and absence of specific marginalized groups is iterative and takes practice, but developing plain-language communications that accommodate these audiences reduces cognitive load for all readers. And although personas are useful for developing cognitive empathy, nothing replaces user testing in determining your communication's effectiveness.

Document type: 
Rights remain with the author.