March 12, 2012

Are you a victim of the QWERTY effect?


Life may be just a little easier for John than for Dexter or Xavier.

New research from cognitive scientists suggests that the ease with which words can be typed on the standard QWERTY keyboard  may effect our feelings about those words.

An article in Wired magazine reports, “A keyboard’s arrangement could have a small but significant impact on how we perceive the meaning of words we type. Specifically, the QWERTY keyboard may gradually attach more positive meanings to words with more letters located on the right side of the layout (everything to the right of T, G and B).”

The report continues:

“We know how a word is spoken can affect its meaning. So can how it’s typed,” said cognitive scientist Kyle Jasmin of the University of College London, co-author of a study about the so-called “QWERTY effect” in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. “As we filter language, hundreds or thousands of words, through our fingers, we seem to be connecting the meanings of the words with the physical way they’re typed on the keyboard.”

The effect may arise from the fact that letter combinations that fall on the right side of the keyboard tend to be easier to type than those on the left.

“If it’s easy, it tends to lend a positive meaning. If it’s harder, it can go the other way,” Jasmin said….

Based on previous research, Jasmin and and his colleague Daniel Casasanto, a social psychologist at the New School for Social Research,  knew that “the difficulty of using an object affected how positively or negatively people viewed it,” in an effect called “fluency.” Jasmin and Cassanto found fluency “even seems to affect abstractions such as people’s names. The more difficult it is to pronounce a person’s name, for example, the less positively we might view that person.”

The QWERTY layout of the keys dates back to 1868, when it was adopted by the Remington Typewriter Company. It was designed to solve the problem of earlier keyboard layouts, where frequently used letters would often jamb together when struck too quickly in succession. The typewriter layout survived into modern computer keyboards, with the more difficult to type letters mostly appearing on the left side.

Looking at the difficulties of QWERTY inspired the researchers to investigate. The Wired article continues:

In their first experiment, the researchers analyzed 1,000-word indexes from English, Spanish and Dutch, comparing their perceived positivity with their location on the QWERTY keyboard. The effect was slight but significant: Right-sided words scored more positively than left-sided words.

With newer words, the correlation was stronger. When the researchers analyzed words coined after the QWERTY keyboard’s invention, they found that right-sided words had more positive associations than left-sided words.

In another experiment, 800 typists recruited through’s Mechanical Turk service rated whether made-up words felt positive or negative. A QWERTY effect also emerged in those words.

Jasmin cautioned that words’ literal meanings almost certainly outweigh their QWERTY-inflected associations, and said the study only shows a correlation rather than clear cause-and-effect. Also, while a typist’s left- or right-handedness didn’t seem to matter, Jasmin said there’s not yet enough data to be certain.

“But as far as I know, this is the first demonstration that even hints how a word is typed can shape what it means over time,” he said.

In the future, the researchers plan to scrutinize other kinds of keyboards.

“In different languages, there are other variations with more and different punctuation keys in different places and more letters on the right than the left,” he said. “Technology changes words, and by association languages. It’s an important thing to look at.”

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.