How truthiness works

Truthiness is a word coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005 but already a recognized concept. Wikipedia defines it as “a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” In other words, truthiness just feels right and therefore resembles truth.

There is an item in ScienceDaily (here) reporting on a paper by Newman etal, Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2012. They used statements with and without photos to see whether photos affected the agreement with the statements. The photos illustrated the topic of the statements but added no verification of them.

In a series of four experiments in both New Zealand and Canada, Newman and colleagues showed people a series of claims such as, “The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium” and asked them to agree or disagree that each claim was true. In some cases, the claim appeared with a decorative photograph that didn’t reveal if the claim was actually true — such as a thermometer. Other claims appeared alone. When a decorative photograph appeared with the claim, people were more likely to agree that the claim was true, regardless of whether it was actually true.

Why should this be? The photos appear to add truthiness to the statements.

Across all the experiments, the findings fit with the idea that photos might help people conjure up images and ideas about the claim more easily than if the claim appeared by itself. “We know that when it’s easy for people to bring information to mind, it ‘feels’ right,” said Newman.

A confusion between easy and right – dangerous.

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