Have you ever read a misleading headline or an outrageous rumour and mistaken it to be true? Even the most cynical people have a psychological tendency to believe everything they read at first, says Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog.
Why? Because to understand something is to believe it. At least initially.
A 1993 experiment by psychologist Daniel Gilbert had participants read statements about robberies and then suggest a jail sentence. Some of the lines in the statements they read were true, and others — ones that made the crimes sound much worse — were false. Participants were told that false statements would appear in red and the true statements would appear in green. Here’s the kicker: while reading the material, some of the participants were purposely distracted.
Gilbert found that participants who were distracted and didn’t have time to process what they read gave the robbers worse jail sentences. They hadn’t had time to analyse the green versus red statements and instead took the statement as a whole to make their decision.
Participants who were not interrupted gave the robbers more realistic sentences and suggested the robbers receive less jail time.
So what does this mean?
“Believing is not a two-stage process involving first understanding then believing,” writes Dean. “Instead understanding is believing, a fraction of a second after reading it, you believe it until some other critical faculty kicks in to change your mind.”
The next time you read something that sounds a little outlandish, take time to absorb it and then question the material.
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