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Truth Bias – At the Core of Human Nature

truth bias

Truth bias is the tendency to believe what we are told. It’s how we get through the day. But this social instinct no longer serves us as well as it once did. 

Most people get most of their information online. This applies to news, as well. Roughly two-thirds of people get at least some of their news and information from social media. And while social media is less trusted than traditional media by all age groups, its use is growing. And, social media has become the primary source of news for young adults.

Lots has been written recently about “fake news” and how easy it is to manipulate people online. I got to wondering: why? Are people really just lazy, indifferent or stupid? Not so. It goes much deeper.

Part of the challenge is selection and confirmation bias. We tend to seek information from sources that support our beliefs. And, we tend to believe things that we already believe. Not surprising, but it goes deeper still.

Let’s start with how our social nature has evolved. As part of “getting along” we have developed the instinct to believe what people tell us, especially in person. This is called truth bias. And it makes sense. Consider how difficult life could be if we considered everything everyone said as a lie. So, we tend to believe what we are told until we get some kind of warning to the contrary.

Scientific studies have shown that we tend to believe first, and maybe doubt later. Without time for reflection, people tend to believe what they read and hear in the first instance. We take things at face value. Critical thinking may or may not arrive later.

Unfortunately, this default condition gives liars an advantage.

Truth Bias and Social Media

The very nature of social media makes it easy to spread lies. First, it comes in the form of personal conversations. Second, it moves along very quickly. Third, it appears in printed form, adding to its authority. Our human tendency to judge these interpersonal messages as truthful adds to their credibility, regardless of truth.

Finally, there is another bias called the illusory truth effect. This is the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure. Since social media typically goes viral, repetition  is inherent in the system. How many times have you seen the same message tweeted or liked over and over?

For over 350 years, scientists have adopted the motto Nullius in verba or “Take nobody’s word for it”. Good advice for the lab. But the real world would creak to a halt if everyone adopted methodological doubt as the default for daily personal interactions.

That said, modern humans must find more time to question more of the things they are told every day. Fight your instincts a little bit. Feel free to question this article!

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