Tuesday, May 15

Do We Believe Everything We Read?

What is our first reaction to new information? Do we doubt its veracity or do we automatically believe it?

Well, a Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza believed that the very act of understanding information was believing it. We may be able to change our minds about believing the information later, but at first, we believe everything.

A French philosopher, mathematician and physicist René Descartes, however, did not agree with Spinoza on this. He argued that understanding and believing are two separate processes. He thought that people take in the information by paying attention to it and then decide whether they believe it or not.

Who Was Right?

Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments to test whether understanding and belief operate together or whether belief of disbelief comes later.

71 participants had to read statements about two robberies and then give the robbers a jail sentence. Some of the statements were made to make the crime seem less malicious, for example the robber's kids were starving, and the others made to make it look worse, for example the robber had a gun.

Only some of the statements were true, others were false. Participants were told that true statements were displayed in green type and false in red type. Half of the participants were deliberately distracted while they were reading the false statements. The other half were allowed to read the statements undisturbed.

If Spinoza was right and Descartes wrong, then those who were distracted while reading the false statements wouldn't have time to process the fact that the statement was written in red and is therefore false, and ergo the jail time they give to the criminal would be influenced by the false statements as well.

Well, the results showed that when the false statements made the crime seem worse, the participants who were disturbed gave the criminals almost twice as long prison sentences.

However, the group in which participants were allowed to read undisturbed managed to ignore the false statements and there was no remarkable difference between prison sentences.

These results obviously mean that only when given time to process the information did people behave as the false statements were actually false and that without the time to process the information, people believed what they read.

Gilbert and his colleagues have also conducted further experiments on this subject which have all confirmed that Spinoza was right and we really are designed to believe everything we read.