Stephen Colbert, an American political satirist, coined the term “truthiness” during the pilot of his program The Colbert Report.
Colbert described truthiness as knowing in your gut that something is true as opposed to knowing through facts, logic, or evidence. The word “truthiness” caught on— you can now find entries for it in online reference sites, like this one at Dictionary.com:
The quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like.
Research shows that people do believe information that they feel is correct “from their gut,” and that truthiness is the way many people remember events and make decisions.
If I asked you “Is China a country in Asia?,” you would probably be able to quickly and correctly answer this question by relying on your knowledge and your memory. But there are other similar questions I could ask you that you wouldn’t be as sure about. For example, if I asked you “Is there a Gutenberg printing press museum in Mainz, Germany?,” you might only be able to answer correctly if you’d read books about Gutenberg, or traveled to Mainz. (The answer, by the way, is yes.)
Most of the time people are in System 1 thinking mode. System 1 is intuitive and quick. System 1 relies on Colbert’s “truthiness.” This means that you may try to answer the question about the Gutenberg museum based on gut alone.
Sometimes, and maybe even a lot of the time, these intuitive truthiness decisions can be correct. But sometimes they’re not. And these gut decisions are easily influenced.
Repetition Makes People Trust Their Gut
What influences people when they’re deciding whether or not something is true? Research on this question goes back at least as far as the late 1970s. In 1977, Lynn Hasher’s research showed that if people hear false information enough times, then they come to believe that it’s true. The theory is that repetition makes the information seem easier to recall. This feeling of easy cognitive processing combines with the feeling of familiarity. System 1 senses when something is familiar and easy to understand and then decides that it’s trustworthy and true.
Photo + Information = Truthiness
You probably already know that combining a photo with text—for example, showing a picture with a recipe—provides context and makes textual information easy to understand. But you may not realize that a photo can also increase people’s tendency to believe information, even when it’s not true.
Steven Frenda (2013) showed photos with news clips for political events that had occurred over the previous ten years. Some of the photos and news clips were real, and some had been altered so that they looked real, but described events that had not happened.
For example, one fake story included a photo of President Obama shaking hands with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with this text:
“April 20, 2009: President Obama, greeting heads of state at a United Nations conference, shakes the hand of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. White House aides say the encounter was unplanned and the handshake was a formality.”
Another fake story included a picture of President George W. Bush at the wheel of a pickup truck with Roger Clemens, a well known baseball player, with this text:
“September 1, 2005: As parts of New Orleans lie underwater in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush entertains Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.”
After participants viewed each photo and news clip they chose from these four options:
- I remember seeing this.
- I don’t remember seeing it, but I remember it happening.
- I don’t remember it.
- I have a different memory of how it happened.
They could also respond to the following free-form questions:
- How did you feel about [this event] at the time?
- Looking back, how do you feel about it today?
Frenda tested 2,650 participants. At the beginning of the study, participants saw three true events. This was to see how much people remembered these types of events at all. Most of the participants (82 percent) chose either “I remember seeing it” or “I remember it happening” for each of the true events. And almost everyone (98 percent) remembered seeing at least two of the three events.
Then the participants viewed one of five fake events and photos. Half of the 2,650 participants reported that they remembered the false event, and of those that reported remembering the event, half of those (or 27 percent of the total participants) said that they not only remembered the event, but also remembered seeing it on the news at the time. Only 6 percent of the participants said that they remembered it differently. The rest (44 percent) said that they didn’t remember the event.
Some participants even commented about their reaction to the event when it occurred. For example, for one of the fake photos about an event during Hillary Clinton’s campaigning for the Democratic nomination in 2008, one participant wrote in the freeform question area:
“I thought it was a desparate [sic] move and it solidified my disgust with Mrs. Clinton as a candidate.”
In a second study, the researchers found that political affiliation affected false memories. Liberals tended to think that false reports that made conservatives look bad were true, and conservatives tended to think that false reports that made liberals look bad were true.
I’m not advocating that you use doctored photos and fake information to falsely affect people’s memories. In fact, knowing about this research means that you have to make sure that false photos and information aren’t intentionally or accidentally communicated. It’s all too easy for false information to end up online and then be repeated everywhere, combining the photo/information effect with the repetition effect! You may want to fact check websites and other information products to make sure you’re not adding to this problem.
The influence of photos on the decision of truthiness holds even when evaluating factual information. Erin Newman (2015) paired photos with the statement “Macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches.” Sometimes the photo would be related to the text, for example, a photo of a bowl containing macadamia nuts. Sometimes the photo would have nothing to do with the topic, and sometimes there was no photo at all.
If there was a related photo, then people were more likely to rate the statement as true.
Newman found that the truthiness effect could last a long time, with people believing the information for days, months, or longer if there was a related photo.
Newman’s hypothesis was that a photo speeds up processing and decision-making and adds to the feeling of easy cognitive processing and familiarity.
Here’s the set of equations:
Photo = easy to understand
Easy to understand = familiar
Familiar = true
People aren’t aware of this decision-making. It happens unconsciously.
- When you want people to believe information, repeat it often.
- Using a related photo next to text increases the believability of information.
- When you use photos to augment information, make sure the photos are accurate.