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The Psychology of Jimmy Kimmel's "Lie Witness News"

Why are these pedestrians so easily fooled?

If you’re not familiar with Jimmy Kimmel Live’s segment “Lie Witness News,” you’re missing out on a pretty fascinating (and pretty hilarious) psychology experiment.

The premise is this: Kimmel’s staff takes to the streets of L.A. as roving reporters, questioning pedestrians about recent stories in the news. These stories, however, are…not quite right, to say the least.

ABC/Jimmy Kimmel Live
Source: ABC/Jimmy Kimmel Live

Take last Friday’s Independence Day-themed “Lie Witness News,” where a “reporter” asks a man if he’d be watching “President Obama’s planned 4th of July confederate flag burning with the last surviving Tuskegee Airman and the Wu Tang Clan.”

“I will,” the man replies with a straight face.

“Have you heard about that?”

“I have.”

“Are you excited for it?”

He replies, “A little.”

The reactions of the interviewees are fascinating. Without flinching, they always have an opinion on the matter, and apparently—somehow—they’ve always heard the story from another source beforehand.

But why aren’t people thinking twice about these ridiculous questions? Why does this segment work so well?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, several well-known persuasion methods are at work here. Dr. Robert Cialdini, professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, would likely cite three principles outlined in his theory of influence:

ABC/Jimmy Kimmel Live
Source: ABC/Jimmy Kimmel Live

1. Authority: People tend to respect authority, even if the authority at hand is questionable. Cialdini cites the 1960s Milgram experiments as an example of how people are more likely than not to obey a person in charge, despite conflicting with their conscience. In Kimmel’s segment, the “reporters” play the authority figure. Although the interviewee may not be familiar with the topic at hand, the reporter is asking in such a way that implies that they should. Not knowing any better, the interviewee feels they must go along with it.

2. Social Proof: People will do things that they see others doing. Cialdini describes an experiment in which one or more people look up at the sky, and unsuspecting bystanders were observed to follow suit. An individual who thinks they’re on the news— prompted by a serious, unsmiling reporter asking them to discuss a flag-burning event featuring a Tuskegee Airman and the Wu Tang Clan—is likely to give a serious, unsmiling response, no matter how ridiculous the story.

3. Commitment and Consistency: If people commit to an idea, they’re more likely to honor it so as not to muddy their self-image. People don’t like to back down. “Have you heard about that?” Of course I have! Hasn’t everyone? “Are you excited for it?” Well, yeah. You’re asking me about it because it’s an exciting news story after all, right? We don’t want to look like idiots, especially if we’re being filmed for the local news. (Little did they know…)

Of course, for our entertainment, the producers of Jimmy Kimmel Live are cherry-picking the best and funniest responses for the segment. I’d be curious to know what percentage of people they talk to actually fall for the prank, and how they respond when they find out they’ve been fooled.

In the meantime, I’ll keep watching. It’s a fun experiment—and after all, the interviewees might actually be on to something good with their confident “fake it till you make it” mentality.

More from Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D.
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More from Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D.
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