This ease-of-recall is known as fluency, and the effect of fluency is extremely wide-ranging. While the present paper shows that we judge fluent information as more true, previous work has shown that fluently processed faces are judged to be more attractive, and fluently processed names more frequent. In fact, the Nobel prize was awarded to Daniel Kahneman 2002 for work which showed, among other things, that the ease with which we can bring information to mind leads to an assortment of biases in decision making.
Though the authors believe that this fluency explanation is the most likely one, it is impossible at this stage to rule out other explanations. The authors speculate that it is possible, for example, that the pictures or text could lead people to preferentially look for evidence consistent with the statement. For example, if presented with a photo of a celebrity, and the statement, “This famous person is alive,” one might seek out elements of the picture which provide support for the statement that he or she is alive, and ignore those elements of the picture which might suggest that he or she is not alive, like signs the picture comes from a previous decade. Further work should be able to disentangle which explanation is more correct.
With profound apologies to Colbert, these findings suggest we would all be wise to be more critical of our feelings of truthiness. Is that health claim on your cereal box accompanied by a picture? Do the safety claims of the car ad in your magazine appear alongside other information about the vehicle? Does the assertion of a fact on a website appear next to a photo of the writer? Given that we will live with the consequences of this presidential elections for the next four years, we should pay close attention not only to the information presented by the candidates, but also the manner in which they present that information. There are many instances in which trusting the truth which comes from your gut could mean that you’re subscribing to something less than the truth. In other words: if it feels good, question it.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.