When presented with a piece of information for the first time, do we first understand the message before carefully evaluating its truthfulness and deciding whether to believe it, or do we instead immediately and automatically believe everything we read?
In an article that traces the history of this question (Descartes argued that “understanding and believing are two separate processes” while Spinoza thought that “the very act of understanding information was believing it”), an ingenious experiment conducted almost twenty years ago by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, describes how Spinoza was correct: when we first encounter information we believe it immediately and without thought, only to fully evaluate its truthfulness moments later provided we are not distracted.
Obviously it is important to be aware of this behaviour, as to be distracted while reading critical information of questionable veracity could cause us to not evaluate it fully or at all. However this behaviour has further implications, according to the article, suggesting that this may “explain other behaviours that people regularly display”, including:
- Correspondence bias: this is people’s assumption that others’ behaviour reflects their personality, when really it reflects the situation.
- Truthfulness bias: people tend to assume that others are telling the truth, even when they are lying.
- The persuasion effect: when people are distracted it increases the persuasiveness of a message.
- Denial-innuendo effect: people tend to positively believe in things that are being categorically denied.
- Hypothesis testing bias: when testing a theory, instead of trying to prove it wrong people tend to look for information that confirms it.