Psychology explains why people are so easily duped

Posted on July 5, 2014

True or false: "The Eiffel Tower is in France." Most of us can quickly and accurately answer this question by relying on our general knowledge. But what if you were asked to consider the claim: "The beehive is a building in New Zealand." Unless you have visited New Zealand or watched a documentary on the country, this is probably a difficult question. So instead of recruiting your general knowledge to answer the claim, you'll turn to your intuition. Put another way, you'll rely on what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness" - truth that comes from the gut, and not books.

As a cognitive psychologist, I study the ways that memory and belief go awry: How do we come to believe that things are true when they are not? How can we remember things that never actually happened? I am especially intrigued by the concept of truthiness - how smart, sophisticated people use unrelated information to decide whether something is true or not.

For instance, in a classic study by Norbert Schwarz and Rolf Reber at the University of Michigan, people were more likely to think a statement was true when it was written in high color contrast (blue words on white) as opposed to low contrast (yellow words on white). Of course, the color contrast has nothing to do with whether the claim is true, but it nonetheless biased people's responses. The high color contrast produced a feeling of truthiness in part because those statements felt easier to read than the low color contrast statements. And it turns out that this feeling of easy processing (or low cognitive effort) brings with it a feeling of familiarity. When things feel easy to process, they feel trustworthy - we like them and think they are true.

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Source material from Washington Post