The Evolution of "Truthiness"

 Posted on December 06, 2023 in Personal Injury

By Daniel M. Kotin

In October 2005, Stephen Colbert essentially invented the word truthiness on his TV show. Since then, his made-up word has earned an official place in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 

truth-i-ness (noun): A truthful or seemingly truthful quality that is claimed for something not because of supporting facts or evidence but because of the feeling that it is true or the desire for it to be true.

Also, in the 18 years since that satirical Colbert Report aired, several studies and articles in peer-reviewed journals have drilled down on this concept and identified a phenomenon known as the "truthiness effect." Research shows that if any claim is accompanied by a neutral, generic photograph of the subject of that claim, most unknowing people will be biased into believing that claim is true. This is a bit scary. 

Let’s look at a couple of examples. Psychologists Eryn J. Newman and Lynn Zhang wrote about research subjects being presented with this statement and asked if it is true or false:

“Giraffes are the only mammal that cannot jump.”

Presented as words alone, most people have no idea how to answer this question. But when the question is asked and accompanied by a neutral photograph of a giraffe’s head and neck, a strong bias is created toward the belief that the statement is true

“Giraffes are the only mammal that cannot jump.”
Giraffes are the only mammal that cannot jump

In reality, giraffes do, in fact, jump. But by adding the non-probative photograph, the truthiness effect convinces most people that the false statement is true.

Here’s another example referenced by Newman and Zhang. 

“Magnesium is the liquid metal in a thermometer.”
Magnesium is the liquid metal in a thermometer

This statement is also false. (Mercury is the liquid metal in a thermometer). When presented with this statement as words alone, respondents were equally divided as to whether it was true or false.  But when the statement was accompanied with a photograph of an ordinary thermometer, most people accepted it as true. 

These are just two of many examples of the "truthiness effect." Statements accompanied by neutral, non-probative photographs of the subject of that statement are most often believed as true. In addition to photos, research indicates that constant repetition of a claim also promotes the "truthiness effect." We’ve all seen how truthiness has infested our political landscape since 2016, but we cannot underestimate how it also impacts jury trials, sales pitches, or any other setting in which a person is trying to convince others to believe an argument or agree with a position.

In thinking about this, I could not accept that this phenomenon and the ensuing field of psychological study was all the result of a 3-minute monologue on Comedy Central.  So, I did a little research.

It turns out that Roman politician Cicero coined the term “Ipse Dixit” around 50 B.C. Literally, it means “he said it to himself.” In other words, “it is because I said it is.” Cicero was referring to people making persuasive claims without any supporting evidence. 

So even though "truthiness" and the "truthiness effect" may be a rather new concept that we may all use and certainly must be wary of, the underlying idea behind this false method of persuasion has been around for almost 2,100 years.  

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