Judging “Truth”

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Volume 13, Number 10

There are many health-related topics where people decide for themselves what is true, and subsequently behave accordingly. Among these are decisions about immunizations, use of prescription medications versus “natural” products, what constitutes a “healthy” diet, the impact of environmental pollutants and climate change, and many others. Unfortunately, such decisions are often made intuitively, that is, based on what feels right. In other words, decision-making is done with one’s gut rather than one’s brain.

Several cognitive psychologists from the University of Southern California, Drs. Norbert Schwarz, Eryn Newman, and William Leach, have identified criteria that persons tend to use when making such judgments. Information can be evaluated analytically, a process that tends to be complex and requires effort, or intuitively, a process that relies more on emotion and familiarity. The five criteria are essentially questions that are answered. Following are the criteria, with distinctions between what sources may be used in analytical and intuitive evaluation, respectively.

  • Do others believe it? (Social Consensus): statistical information (analytic) versus how frequently one has heard about a belief (intuitive)
  • Is there supporting evidence? (Support): scientific data (analytic) versus how easy it is to recall examples supporting a belief (intuitive)
  • Is it compatible with what I believe? (Consistency): systematically compare new information to existing knowledge (analytic) versus a gut feeling that the new information is consistent with one’s current beliefs (intuitive)
  • Does it tell a good story? (Coherence): how well do elements of the information fit together logically (analytic) versus the enjoyment of the story and how easy it is to follow (intuitive)
  • Does it come from a credible source? (Credibility): what is the source’s expertise and motive (analytic) versus how familiar and trustworthy the person appears to be (intuitive)

Dr. Newman and colleagues have found that simply including a photo with a claim increases the likelihood of a claim being judged to be accurate, even if the photo actually offers no tangible support for the claim. Photos are typically perceived as providing evidence, even if they don’t.

Of course, one of the arenas in which false claims can be readily perpetuated is social media. Such “sources” of information can come to be viewed as credible, claims are commonly communicated as simple truths, and social consensus and support becomes “evident” with the number of “likes.”

The phenomenon of believing unsubstantiated claims is certainly not new in human history, but is of enough contemporary concern that the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was “post-truth.” Post-truth is defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The dictionary chose this word rather than “truthiness,” coined by comic Stephen Colbert to essentially depict the same phenomenon.

What can be done to minimize the perpetuation of “post-truths?” The USC psychologists emphasize that it is important to repeat correct information, without mention of the misinformation that one wants to override. This is to avoid repeated exposure to the misinformation. Furthermore, the factual information needs to be summarized as simply as possible (which can be challenging since factual information often isn’t simple). Also important but potentially difficult is to forewarn people that misinformation is coming, when possible. For example, there are legal requirements that disclaimers must be included in ads for health-related products that make claims of unsubstantiated benefits. Typically these disclaimers come at the end of ads rather than at the beginning, and are either put in small print or reviewed rapidly. Disclaimers are more likely to affect perceptions if they come before unsubstantiated claims.

Health-related information is extensive, and there are competing assertions about the impact of a wide array of factors and products on health. And because health is a sizeable portion of the economy in the United States, there is much incentive to convince people of the veracity of a claim. However, in the interest of public health and individual well being, it is of great importance to minimize susceptibility to “post-truth” conclusions, and rather base health-related investments and decisions on factual data.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph. D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.


The URL for the e-quilibrium blog is http://e-quilibrium-newsletter.org

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phone: (937) 734-6851

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