A scientific paper on why legal contracts are relentlessly incomprehensible has won a 2022 Ig Nobel Prize, which describe themselves as a ‘good natured’ satirical parody of the Nobel Prizes, celebrating the strangest achievements in scientific research. Past winners of the Ig Nobel literature prize include a paper in 2018 documenting that most people who use complicated products do not read the instruction manual.
The paper that won this year’s literature prize was called ‘Poor writing, not specialized concepts, drives processing difficulty in legal language.’ Written by Eric Martinez and Edward Gibson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Francis Mollica at the University of Edinburgh, the paper looks at whether legal contracts are difficult for the average person to understand because the law is a system of expert knowledge, and the jargon is necessary for technical precision, or because they are (to put it rather more bluntly than they do in the paper), written badly.
The paper revealed that contracts contain “startlingly” high proportions of difficult-to-process (“complex psycholinguistic) features including low frequency jargon, centre-embedded clauses, passive voice structures, and non-standard capitalisation.
The authors compared the complexity of language found in a sample of contracts against a broad sample of English texts. Two experiments then revealed that the language in contracts was recalled and comprehended at lower rates than other excerpts, even by experienced readers.
The authors concluded that poor writing, not a lack of specialised knowledge, is responsible for difficulty understanding contracts.
The Ig Nobel Prizes describe themselves as science that makes you laugh, then think, and if it’s any consolation, we bet there will be a lot of our readers who find the paper interesting. Although given the long, long running move towards using plain English in commercial contracts, there is a bit of an element of ‘we could have told you so.’
Other research to win an Ig Nobel Prize this year include a study on how constipation affects the mating prospects of scorpions. For the full list present and past see: https://improbable.com/ig/winners/