Higher Intelligence And An Analytical Thinking Style Offer No Protection Against “The Illusory Truth Effect”

The Illusory Truth Effect – Our Tendency To Believe Repeated Claims Are More Likely To Be True

by Matthew Warren British Psychology Digest edited by O Society June 26, 2019

It’s a trick politicians have long exploited: repeat a false statement often enough, and people will start believing it’s true. Psychologists name this phenomenon the “illusory truth effect”, and it seems to come from the fact we find it easier to process information we’ve encountered many times before. This creates a sense of fluency, which we then (mis)interpret as a signal the content is true.  

Of course, you might like to believe your particular way of thinking makes you immune to this trick. But according to a pre-print uploaded recently to PsyArXiv, you’d be wrong.

In a series of experiments, Jonas De keersmaecker at Ghent University and his collaborators found that individual differences in cognition had no bearing on the strength of the illusory truth effect. 

The researchers wondered whether three aspects of cognition, already known to influence how people make judgments, could determine how prone someone is to the illusory truth effect: cognitive ability or intelligence; the need for cognitive closure (i.e. the desire to avoid ambiguity); and cognitive style (whether someone thinks in a rapid and intuitive manner or takes a slower and more analytic approach). For example, someone who relies more on intuition and wants hard-and-fast answers might be more likely to use the fact that information has been repeated as a cue to its truthfulness.

Across six experiments involving between 199 and 336 participants, the team measured the illusory truth effect while also tapping into these aspects of cognition. The exact methods varied for each study, but generally participants would first read a mix of true and false trivia statements, then complete various cognitive tests and surveys, and finally they would re-read and judge as true or false the earlier trivia statements, as well as new ones interspersed among them. A seventh study was similar but involved fake and real political headlines (the participants’ final challenge in this case was to judge which were real and which were made up).

The researchers found the illusory truth effect across all seven studies: participants were more likely to rate trivia statements and headlines as true/real if they’d seen them previously. Crucially, the strength of this effect did not vary according to the participants’ cognitive ability or style, or need for closure. (A couple of studies found some small significant associations, but these disappeared when the researchers integrated all the data.)

These results suggest that we are all predisposed to believe repeated information regardless of our own particular cognitive profile. And while that might make us all susceptible to advertising and the fabrications of dishonest politicians, the researchers have a more optimistic take. “These novel findings are in line with the assertion that processing fluency is not a judgmental bias and flaw in the individual, but rather a cue to truth that is universal and epistemologically justified in most contexts”, they write. In other words, it’s not that there’s a foolish subgroup of people who are more vulnerable to the “illusory truth” effect, but rather it’s an advantageous and universal bias that’s arisen because most of the time fluency actually is a reliable signal of truth. For example, a statement that is often repeated may tend to be endorsed by more people, which could be a useful cue to its truth.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t individual differences relating to the illusory truth effect waiting to be discovered, the team adds. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, seem to show a less strong effect, suggesting that certain fundamental aspects of memory and cognition may be required to support the effect. With a greater willingness to publish null results like this one – and not just leave them in the file drawer – researchers should be able to build up a much more complete picture of the illusory truth effect and other cognitive biases.

Investigating the robustness of the illusory truth effect across individual differences in cognitive ability, need for cognitive closure, and cognitive style [This study is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subject to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version on which this report was based]

The Illusory Truth Effect: How Millions Were Duped By Russiagate

The Big Liars

Two Years in, Trump Can Still Count on News Media to Do His Bidding

We Are All Confident Idiots

How to Believe and Respond

7 thoughts on “Higher Intelligence And An Analytical Thinking Style Offer No Protection Against “The Illusory Truth Effect”

  1. This is something to keep in mind. Now someone needs to repeat this in the media enough until the public understands and accepts it. Even if to promote skepticism only slightly would be a great accomplishment.

    That said, it would be nice to see even more detailed research. I’m willing to bet that individual differences could be found. There are almost always exceptions. And it would be nice to know what conditions might allow for exceptions, even if rare. Promoting those conditions might make the exceptions more common.

    Also, maybe significant skepticism in relation to this phenomenon is only seen on a collective level when enough of the population holds such an attitude. Studying individuals wouldn’t be able to show this and, instead, would require studying diverse societies.

    To avoid the WEIRD bias, a study should be done in entirely different cultures, especially hunter-gatherers. We know from past research that WEIRD populations are among the least representative on the planet. Some studies have found completely opposite results when looking at non-WEIRD populations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you. However, our current system will not permit our media to discuss propaganda and metacognition and skepticism in a meaningful way. As you know, instead we get a phake politainment version of these things called “Russiagate.”

      As long as our media are driven by money, which comes from advertisers, which comes from ratings, then there is no hope. They will repeat the message Trump controls as long as it translates to profit.

      Therefore, the only solution is to ignore Trump. This has been the only solution since the beginning of the Trump phenomenon back when he was calling Obama a “Kenyan Muslim.” Now it is far too late.

      The only thing that can happen is Trump’s ratings decline to the point media outlets change the channel to something else. Until then, collectively speaking, we remain collectively fucked on social media, cable TV, and internet news sites because these are all infotainment sources ultimately responsible only to the number of likes, clicks, and shares.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Trump Slump is something I hadn’t thought about. But it makes sense. I’ve been going through news slump for many years now. And Trump’s endless bullshit didn’t help. Neither did the Democratic bullshit in response.

        It all became tiresome. The corporate media’s bullshit was the worst of all. Bullshit all around. I suspect I share this feeling with many other Americans. Polls show that trust in government, corporations, and media is extremely low.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Agreed. I didn’t pay attention to the news this millennium until recently.

        What I mean is since college, I intentionally have not read newspapers or watched the nightly news on TV. Haven’t had cable TV in my home for at least a decade. Closest thing I got to “following politics” was watching Comedy Central with Jon Stewart and Cobert on the internet.

        Once the shit hit the fan with Trump, I – just like everyone else in the known universe – was dragged into this circle jerk with The Emperor’s New Clothes.

        So have been doing the autodidactic thing for the last 3 years or so trying to understand politics, economics, and culture… mainly to get oriented enough to understand how the world got so damned disorienting while I wasn’t paying attention.

        Mine’s a Rip van Winkle story really – ha ha!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That has been my main interest in politics. I’m simply trying to understand what is going on in the world. It’s been a long term project for me. My adulthood began in the mid-90s, although it took me a while to become politically aware. My awakening happened in the late-90s to early-aughts, as inspired by the likes of Art Bell, Robert Anton Wilson, and Derrick Jensen. That was my education of sorts.

        I’ve never been the most political person, though. Only briefly in 2000 was I inspired by Ralph Nader. but then I gave up any hope for democracy when that election was stolen and the Democratic party caved. That was when I absolutely knew that democracy wasn’t possible in this country until something fundamentally changed. My serious study began sometime in the Bush era and intensified in the early years of Obama’s administration. I participated in the protest movement against the Iraq War, the largest protest movement in world history and it began before the war started. When that failed to stop war, it definitely made me rethink how politics operates. If the majority of the population being against a war can’t stop the ruling elite from their war-mongering, then some deeper understanding and course of action was required.

        In looking closer at history and at various sources of data, including polls, I began to sense a shift in the air a little over a decade ago. That was when I wrote a long piece researching the leftward trend of polling data. Occupy and the Tea Party were both expressions of this shifting mood. I knew something big was on its way. But I don’t think anyone could have predicted Trump. Then again, maybe it should’ve been predictable that someone like Trump could manage to get elected by using leftist rhetoric, in his re-invoking a Progressive era vision of cleaning up corruption, corporate regulations, healthcare reform, national infrastructure projects, etc. If Democrats refused to run on a leftist platform, then the GOP would co-opt such rhetoric for reactionary ends.

        I knew the right-wing was likely to get more dangerous as demographic and public opinion shifts destabilized their previously solid base. An animal is most dangerous when cornered, a thought I had at the time. Something had to give, either in the direction of greater liberalization or greater authoritarianism. With the Democratic party attacking the political left, we apparently are going with the latter choice. So, authoritarianism here we come!


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