Tip Sheet: I Can't Believe My Eyes

What makes us buy a lie?

By Lauren F. Friedman, published on November 5, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Truth may be empirical, but judgments of veracity are not based on evidence alone. At least part of our belief—or disbelief—in a statement comes from what comedian Stephen Colbert calls truthiness: "truth that comes from the gut, not books." While cold, hard facts are by definition unchangeable, our intuitive sense of what's true is easily manipulated. Have a bridge you need to sell? Here are three tricks that make people more likely to trust a false statement—don't let yourself be swayed by them.

Paint a Picture

Placing an image beside an assertion—say, a random photo of macadamia nuts next to the statement "Macademia nuts are related to peaches"—makes subjects more likely to rate the accompanying statement as true, a recent study reports. The same method works with an assertion about a celebrity, whether it reads "So-and-so is dead" or "So-and-so is alive." Why? The researchers suggest that people regard photographs as evidence backing up just about any stated hypothesis.

Say It Twice

When it comes to persuading someone that what you're saying is the truth, "Better luck next time" isn't just a bromide—it's a time-tested tip. Because we tend to trust things that feel familiar, a misleading claim becomes more convincing when it's repeated. A recent study reported in Acta Psychologica finds that people are likelier to believe statements in eyewitness accounts when they are repeated, even if the source is a single person restating a lie and there are no corroborators.

Make Some Sense

The first step to comprehending something may be accepting it as true, at least for a moment. In a classic study, "You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read," psychologist Daniel Gilbert and co-authors found evidence that unless a person is hypervigilant, understanding requires some suspension of disbelief. When people are distracted, rushed, or mentally overloaded, they are especially suspectible to taking any comprehensible statement at face value.