Women had been fighting a long battle for respite from labour pains, and the survey made it plain that the battle was yet to be won. For decades, there had been widespread opposition to pain relief in labour, because it was deemed to go against the word of God. (‘In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,’ the sinful Eve was told – Genesis 3:16.) But two events started to turn things around. One was the discovery that chloroform had anaesthetic properties. The other was that Queen Victoria secretly called a doctor to the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold, in 1853 and demanded that he give her some of this new-fangled chloroform to get her through. The palace denied the event for several years, but it nevertheless helped to disseminate the idea that taking pain relief in labour was an acceptable thing to do.
Sometimes, increasing a statement’s truthiness can be as simple as adding an irrelevant picture. In one rather macabre experiment from 2012, Newman showed her participants statements about a series of famous figures – such as a sentence claiming that the indie singer Nick Cave was dead. When the statement was accompanied by a stock photo of the singer, they were more likely to believe that the statement was true, compared to the participants who saw only the plain text.
The photo of Nick Cave could, of course, have been taken at any point in his life. It makes no sense that someone would use it as evidence – it just shows you that he’s a musician in a random band,’ Newman told me. ‘But from a psychological perspective it made sense. Anything that would make it easy to picture or easy to imagine something should sway someone’s judgement.’
Amazingly, just the opposite is true for propaganda. If it strikes a chord with someone, this influence will only increase over time. Why? Psychologist Carl Hovland, who led the study for the war department, named this phenomenon the sleeper effect. To date, the best explanation is that, in our memories, the source of the argument fades faster than the argument. In other words, your brain quickly forgets where the information came from (e.g. from the department of propaganda). Meanwhile, the message itself (i.e., war is necessary and noble) fades only slowly or even endures. Therefore, any knowledge that stems from an untrustworthy source gains credibility over time. The discrediting force melts away faster than the message does.
Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
A key principle here is ‘the generation effect’ – that is, the finding that a message is significantly better remembered if the audience actually thinks it themselves, rather than just reading it superficially. Researchers at the University of Toronto assigned participants to one of two conditions: half of them read pairs of words that were associated in some way, such as rhyming or being semantically linked, like rapid-fast; while the other half were shown one word and the initial letter of its pair, like rapid-f_____. Afterwards, participants completed a test of recognition for the matched words. Those who simply read the words scored an average of 69%, while those who mentally generated the words scored 85%.
My former partner Rich Silverstein used to talk about effective advertising using the analogy of those dot-to-dot games we all used to play as children. I’m sure you remember joining numbered dot to numbered dot. trying to guess what you’re drawing as the picture slowly emerges. Dot, to dot, to dot… then, with just one stroke of the pencil, it is suddenly clear. You have a picture of a badger. Silverstein always used to say that it was important for us to join enough of the dots in our advertising to avoid confusion (and as a result rejection), but to leave enough dots for the viewers or listeners to join for themselves. Into the gaps between the dots of advertising they should insert their own experience, hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows, and thus embrace the communication by becoming a part of it.
In a recent experiment, men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photos were eight by ten inches, and showed women facing the camera or turned in three-quarter profile. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the eyes of the women were dilated, and in the other half they were not. The men were consistently more attracted to the women with dilated eyes. Remarkably, the men had no insight into their decision making.
In a series of five studies, Oppenheimer systematically examined the complexity of the vocabulary used in various passages (including job applications, academic essays and translations of Descartes). He then asked people to read the samples and rate the intelligence of the person who allegedly wrote them. The simpler language resulted in significantly higher ratings of intelligence, showing that the unnecessary use of complex language sent out a bad impression.
Fundamental attribution error was conducted in 1967 by Edward Jones and Victor Harris at Duke University. They had students read speech transcripts of debaters both in support of and in opposition to the political ideologies of Fidel Castro. (Today they might have used Osama bin Laden.) The students correctly attributed the speechwriter’s ideas as influenced by the speechwriter’s internal feelings when told the person who gave the speech had chosen his own position. If, for instance, the debaters said they disagreed with Castro, the students said they believed them. When the students were told the debater had no choice in the matter and was assigned the position as either pro- or anti-Castro, the students didn’t buy it. If the debater was assigned a pro-Castro position and then gave a pro-Castro speech, the students reading that speech told the researchers they thought the debater really believed what he or she was saying. The situation’s influence didn’t play into their assumptions; instead they saw all the debaters’ words as springing from their character.
One of the first experiments on the topic was run in the USA by Solomon Asch. He asked subjects to evaluate a person simply on the basis of a list of six adjectives describing him. They might be told that he was ‘intelligent, industrious, impulsive critic, stubborn and envious’. Other subjects were given exactly the same six words but in the opposite order, ‘envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious and intelligent’. All subjects were then I asked to fill in a rating sheet in order to evaluate the person. For example, they had to indicate how happy they thought he was, how sociable he was, and so on. The subjects who heard the first list, which began with favourable adjectives evaluated the person considerably more highly than did those given the list beginning with the derogatory words. This effect – being more heavily influenced by early than by late item – is called the ‘primacy error’.
Excerpt from: Irrationality: The enemy within by Stuart Sutherland