In 1985, at the dawn of the computer age, the psychologist Susan Belmore conducted a simple experiment on twenty undergraduates at the University of Kentucky. The students were exposed to eight different short texts and then asked to answer a series of questions about what they’d just read. Four of the passages appeared on paper (a sheet of white bond, single-spaced, forty-seven characters per line) and four appeared on the monitor of an Apple II Plus 48k computer. Belmore was curious if reading the text on a screen might influence both the speed of reading and levels of comprehension.
The results were depressing, at least if you were an early adopter of computer technology. “These data indicate that reading texts on a computer display is not equivalent to reading the same texts on paper,” Belmore wrote. “Overall, college students took 12 percent longer to read and comprehended 47 percent less with computer-presented text.”
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.’
Max Planck, the theoretical physicist who helped lay the groundwork for quantum theory, said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
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%.
Researchers have gone to a great deal of trouble to test the efficacy of group brainstorming. In a typical experiment, participants arrive in a group. Half of them are randomly chosen to be in the ‘work as a group’ condition and are placed in one room. They are given standard brainstorming rules and have to come up with ideas to help solve a specific problem (perhaps design a new ad campaign, or find ways of easing traffic congestion). The other half of the participants are asked to sit alone in separate rooms, are given exactly the same instructions and tasks and asked to generate ideas on their own. Researchers then tally the quantity of ideas produced under the different conditions, and then experts rate their quality. So do such studies show that group brainstorming is more effective than individuals working alone? Many scientists are far from convinced. Brian Mullen from the University of Kent at Canterbury and his colleagues analysed the efficacy of group brainstorming in this way, and were amazed to discover i the vast majority of experiments, the participants working on their own produced a higher quantity and quality of ideas than those working in groups.
As John Ward of England’s B&B Dorland noted, “Advertising is a craft executed by people who aspire to be artists, but is assessed by those who aspire to be scientists. I cannot imagine any human relationship more perfectly designed to produce total mayhem.”
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.
An elaborate multivariate analysis showed:
The results provide firm support for the major hypothesis that verbal humor leads to greater compliance. Subjects who received a demand accompanied by humor made greater financial concessions than no-humor subjects… Humor was equally effective as an influence technique when used by both sexes, and when directed toward both sexes. Our compliance data provided no evidence that joking was more appropriate for males.
Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a magic number of repetitions that result in a habit forming. Some say that you need to repeat an action fifty times or for twenty-one days, but very few researchers have actually looked at this question systematically. And those that have done tend to find that there isn’t a clear-cut answer to the question. In one of the few studies to have tracked the formation of healthy habits in real-world settings, researchers studied ninety-six students who had just moved to university and were encouraged to repeat behaviours in response to consistent cues (such as ‘going for a walk after breakfast’). They found that habits formed in some of the students after eighteen days, but for some it took much longer – up to 254 days. The average was sixty-six days.
In a coffee-bar in Sincelejo, northern Colombia, the following is displayed: ‘Bread with butter: 100 pesos. Bread with margarine: 80 pesos. Bread without butter: 60 pesos. Bread without margarine: 40 pesos.’
Bernardo Recaman, Bogota, Colombia.
Excerpt from: The Best Ever Notes and Queries by Joseph Harker
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.
Ideas that are allocated no attention at all – those that are never exposed to anyone – make no impact on the world, by logical extension, since no one sees them. The 50 per cent of YouTube videos with less than 500 views don’t individually make much impact on culture. So attention is a powerful thing – but what kind of thing is it?
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.
In their field experiments Keizer and his colleagues tested to what extent various subtle signs of disorder in an environment could influence the proliferation of other undesirable behaviors. In one study the researchers found the perfect setting for their test: an alleyway near a Dutch shopping mall where shoppers typically parked their bikes. While the shoppers were at the mall, the researchers affixed one of the store’s advertisements on the handlebar of each bicycle with an elastic band. In one condition, the researchers left the alleyway just as they found it; in a second condition, they added graffiti to the alleyway. Because there were no garbage bins in the area, shoppers returning from the mall to find a printed advertisement attached to the handlebars of their bicycle had a simple choice. Do they remove the advertisement and take it home with them—or do they instead drop it on the ground?
The results revealed that 33 percent of the bicycle owners littered the paper when there was no graffiti to be seen in the alleyway. However, 69 percent did so when graffiti was present.
Several studies have demonstrated that we are more likely to help those who dress like us. In one study, done in the early 1970s when young people tended to dress either in “hippie” or “straight” fashion, experimenters donned hippie or straight attire and asked college students on campus for a dime to make a phone call. When the experimenter was dressed in the same way as the student, the request was granted in more than two thirds of the instances; but when the student and requester were dissimilarly dressed, the dime was provided less than half the time. Another experiment shows how automatic our positive response to similar others can be. Marchers in an antiwar demonstration were found to be not only more likely to sign the petition of a similarly dressed requester, but also to do so without bothering to read it first. Click, whirr.
Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.
To test this theory, a few years ago I ran a study in which two groups of people were asked to take part in an experiment in which they spent an afternoon picking up litter in a London park. Participants were told that they were taking part in an experiment examining how best to persuade people to look after their local parks. One group were paid handsomely for their time, while the others were only given a small amount of cash. After an hour or so of backbreaking and tedious work, everyone rated the degree to which they had enjoyed the afternoon. You might think that those clutching a large amount of well-earned cash would be more positive than those who had given their time for very little money.
In fact, the result was exactly the opposite. The average enjoyment rating of the handsomely paid group was a measly 2 out of 10, while the modestly paid group’s average ratings were a whopping 8.5. It seemed that those who had been paid well had thought, ‘Well, let me see, people usually pay me to do things I don’t enjoy. I was paid a large amount, so I must dislike tidying the park.’
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