Don't trust your instincts

Don't trust your instincts

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 colour contrast (blue words on white) as opposed to low contrast (yellow words on white). Of course, the colour contrast has nothing to do with whether the claim is true, but it nonetheless biased people's responses.

The high colour contrast produced a feeling of truthiness in part because those statements felt easier to read than the low colour contrast statements. And it turns out that this feeling of easy processing (or low cognitive effort) brings with it a feeling of familiarity.

In my research at UC Irvine, I have collaborated with psychologists in New Zealand and Canada to discover the ways we can be tricked into thinking something feels familiar, trustworthy and true. In our studies, we have focused on how photos and names can have surprisingly powerful effects on our memories, beliefs and evaluations of others.

Photographs can be deceptive

Photographs can boost comprehension and make it easier for us to learn and remember new information. But cognitive psychology research shows that photos can also have an insidious influence - they can lead us to believe and remember things are true when they are not. In a study by Elizabeth Loftus and others at UC Irvine, people who saw a doctored photo of United States President Barack Obama shaking hands with the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually remembered the event happening - even though it was completely false. Photos can even trick us into remembering false events from our own childhood. People who saw a doctored childhood photo came to remember a false event (riding in a hot air balloon) with the same detail and emotion that you would expect from a real memory.

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