Believe first, ask questions later

Naively, you might think then when presented with a statement that is new to us, we start out not believing it, and then decide if we believe it or not. But apparently, it is the other way around. We have an inbuilt tendency to believe everything we are told, and only then afterwards do we check to see if it is true.

This was discovered by some sneaky psychologists who set up an experiment as follows. They told people a false statement, then straightaway half of the group were distracted, while the other half were not. The ones who were distracted soon after being told the false statement were less likely to spot that the statement was false, than those who were not distracted.

It appears that we take in a statement at face value, and then it takes time for us to test its validity – and if we are distracted we may not get round to doing that. I find this thought fascinating. It also gives me an excuse for voting Lib Dem in the last election. I will claim that something exciting distracted me right after I heard Nick Clegg promising to lower student fees.

It also tells you how to increase your chances of getting a blatantly false statement believed. Tell it, wait a second for the victim to grasp what you are saying, then say something outrageous before they can get round to testing it to see if they think it is true.

I learnt this in Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz. I think this book does ramble a bit in parts, but its central idea is really striking. Basically, it is: We are wrong a lot of the time but don’t-know or won’t-admit-it for almost all of that time, but would achieve more, and have more fun, if we would be a bit more relaxed, and a bit more aware of being wrong.

I think that is a very fair point, especially for a scientist. Scientific research is essentially trying to be a bit less wrong about some part of the natural world, and you can’t do that if you think you are right all the time.


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