Can We Distinguish Between Fact and Fiction?

February 17, 2015 Katharina Lochner
AI in recruitment

How What We See Shapes What We Know

Many of the psychology myths which are subsequently debunked are the result of our tendency to accept whatever is reported in the media without questioning it. However, this effect is not restricted to ‘facts’. It seems that also fiction, for example films, shape our knowledge. We tend to believe whatever we see in a film, even if we know it is not the truth. How do we know, why is this and what can we do about it?

Andrew C. Butler, now at the University of Texas, and his colleagues conducted a study in which they had individuals read stories and watch films on the same historical topics. The stories were accurate, whereas the films contained accurate information, but also inaccurate information that contradicted the facts given in the texts. Before watching the films they were either given no warning, a general warning, or a specific warning that there would be misinformation in the film. When asked to recall a week later what they had learned individuals correctly recalled the facts that were consistent across both media. However, when there was a contradiction between films and stories they usually recalled the information given in the film. The specific warning about the misinformation reduced this effect. Thus, humans tend to believe what they see in films, even if they might be aware of the fact that the films are not completely accurate. Only with some specific pointers as to what might be the misinformation they will evaluate the facts given in the film more critically.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

In another study Elizabeth J. Marsh from Duke University and her colleagues replicated the findings: When there was contradictory information in the stories and in the films, subjects in the study recalled the information given in the films. This was the case although participants had been instructed to search for inaccuracies in the film clips. Only when given feedback on the inaccuracies they recalled less of the inaccurate information.

This study was published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The reason for this seems to be the fact that we are good at remembering things we saw or heard, but we hardly remember the source. From an evolutionary perspective, this seems to be a rather adaptive mechanism: It was important to remember for example that someone had been attacked by a predator at the waterhole, but it was not so important to know who had shared this information. Nowadays, with the huge amount of information we face and the need to distinguish between correct and incorrect information remembering the source of information becomes critical.

There is an outline of the two studies and their implications on the New York Times.

However, what the above mentioned adaptation does not explain is why individuals have a better memory for the films as compared to the written stories. Maybe it is because our brains are better at encoding stories as opposed to simple facts. This is something that we will follow up in next week’s post.

What this is telling us for now is that we have to be sceptical towards what we learn from films. Even if we are aware of the fact that the information given in the film will not be completely accurate we will tend to recall what we learned in the film. Reading the ‘true’ story in advance is not very likely to prevent us from this. Only when the inaccuracy is explicitly pointed out and corrected while we are encountering it will we remember the facts correctly. However, this does not seem to be anything we could put into practice easily. But maybe we can use something else: We can try and remember the source. As we know this will not be something that will happen automatically. Thus, maybe before watching a film we can read something on the same topic that comes from a credible source and actively memorise where the information comes from. In any case, be sceptical about what you see in films, particularly if the films are not true documentaries, but fiction based on real events.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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