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When people evaluate claims, they often rely on what comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” or subjective feelings of truth. In four experiments, we examined the impact of nonprobative information on truthiness. In Experiments 1A and 1B, people saw familiar and unfamiliar celebrity names and, for each, quickly responded “true” or “false” to the (between-subjects) claim “This famous person is alive” or “This famous person is dead.” Within subjects, some of the names appeared with a photo of the celebrity engaged in his or her profession, whereas other names appeared alone. For unfamiliar celebrity names, photos increased the likelihood that the subjects would judge the claim to be true. Moreover, the same photos inflated the subjective truth of both the “alive” and “dead” claims, suggesting that photos did not produce an “alive bias” but rather a “truth bias.” Experiment 2 showed that photos and verbal information similarly inflated truthiness, suggesting that the effect is not peculiar to photographs per se. Experiment 3 demonstrated that nonprobative photos can also enhance the truthiness of general knowledge claims (e.g., Giraffes are the only mammals that cannot jump). These effects add to a growing literature on how nonprobative information can inflate subjective feelings of truth.
True or false: the macadamia nut is closely related to the peach. Most of us don't have the sort of background information that will let us answer that with confidence. Still, we have a gut feeling about the answer—"Nuts and fruit? Probably not." These sort of gut reactions to things can be key to helping us navigate through a world where we often don't have complete information.
So it's a bit disappointing to find out how easily our gut feelings can be manipulated. All it takes is a bit of extraneous information—a picture of macadamias or a verbal description of them—and we're far more likely to assume that a statement is true.
To make sure this didn't only work with people, the authors switched to true/false trivia questions, like the macadamia example mentioned above. Again, photos (in this case, images of the subject of the question) caused people to answer "true" more often than they did in a control quiz. And it wasn't just images. They could get a similar effect by reading a short description of the person in question.
The authors equate this with the "truthiness" popularized by Stephen Colbert, going so far as including the term in their paper's title. But it seems to me that they're not really related. Truthiness seems to be something that feels true despite facts indicating the contrary. Here, people typically didn't have enough information to make a call on the question, and were forced to rely on their instincts.