When you hear a baseless statement frequent enough, it is possible that you start to believe that it is true. This phenomenon, also known as illusory reality effect, is being used by politicians and advertisers for their own benefits, and if you think you are immune to that, you are completely wrong. Fundamentally, at the beginning of this year, we reported a study that revealed that people are predisposed to the effect in question, independently of their individual cognitive profiles.
Yet this situation does not mean that we are desperate in protecting ourselves from this illusion. In a study published in the Cognition Journal, it was determined that the use of our own knowledge to fact-check a baseless claim could prevent us from believing it when the baseless claim in question is repeated. However, we may need to put a little effort to achieve this.
Illusory reality effect stems from the fact that we process repetitive remarks more fluently, meaning we perceive the sense of fluency as a signal indicating that the remark in question is accurate. Although we know the truth, when we repetitively hear an opinion, which we know to be false, such as “Leopard is the fastest land animal”, this effect occurs. Nevertheless, Nadia Brashier et al. from the Harvard University were wondering whether asking people to focus on the accuracy of a statement would encourage those people to use their own knowledge, abstaining from the sense of fluency.
Within the scope of the first study, the team asked 103 participants to read 60 common facts, some of which were true (e.g. Venice is an Italian city that is famous for its canals) and some wrong (Venus is the closest planet to the sun). While one group evaluated how interesting each statement was, the other group evaluated to what extent these statements were true. Then, in the second part of the study, both groups saw a new set of 60 statements, which consisted of true and false statements, in addition to the first 60 statements, and they evaluated their accuracies.
The researchers found that the participants, who focused on how interesting the statements were in the first part of the study, showed the illusory reality effect and subsequently graded the false statements that they already saw to be truer than the new statements, which were false. However, the group, which initially focused on the accuracy of the statements, did not show this effect and evaluated the new and repetitive false statements in an equally accurate manner.
This finding reveals that the use of our own knowledge would enable us to counter the illusory reality effect in order for us to substantially evaluate a statement, which we encounter for the very first time. It can be seen that this has also quite long-lasting effects. In another experiment, the team found that the participants, who initially focused on the accuracy of the statements, did not show any indication of submitting to the illusory reality effect even after two days.
Nonetheless, evaluation of the accuracy of a statement would be beneficial only if we have the proper knowledge (e.g. The closest planet to the sun is Mercury, not Venus). In other studies, the team found that the evaluation of the accuracy of more obscure false statements, which the participants had not much knowledge on, such as “Garfield was the twenty-first president of the USA”, did not provide any protection against the illusory reality effect. It would be interesting to know whether fact-checking against external sources, such as the Internet or reference books, which requires more effect than using only our own knowledge, would be effective in fighting the illusion in such cases.
Nevertheless, the authors mention that having the background needed would not always be sufficient to fight false statements; the results set forth that it might be necessary to essentially “force” the individuals to use the relevant knowledge. “Education constitutes only a specific portion of the solution for the crisis of false knowledge; we need to encourage people to compare the claims they encounter with what they already know,” they explain.
Written by: Matthew Warren