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To Believe Or Not To Believe: How Our Mental Shortcuts Sometimes Lead To False Beliefs

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  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Our perception of whether a claim is true or false is influenced by many factors, such as our default for truth, source credibility and ease of processing through repetition, visual cues, and simple language.
  • Application:
    Keeping in mind how we evaluate information and believe something to be true or false can help you make predictions about consumer behavior.
  • Imagine coming across an ad saying that the advertised shoes will help to tone your muscles and burn extra calories, or that snail oil will cure all acne. You might think that you won’t fall for this claim. But in fact, a lot of people will. Consumers falling for misleading and fraudulent claims isn’t something new. But since social media is rapidly evolving, false information spreads faster and wider than ever.

    How do we interpret the credibility of information and what influences if we’re going to believe false claims?

    How the brain sometimes tricks itself

    Scientists from Duke University mapped which psychological principles underlie belief. These principles come from our mental shortcuts which help us make quick decisions and judgments

    To begin, truth is the default, this is called the truth bias. We tend to believe that people are more likely to tell the truth than to lie. We do this out of cognitive efficiency. We only tag information that is false, everything else we assume as being true. This is also where memory errors happen: often false information is wrongly remembered as true, whereas true information is rarely misremembered as false.

    In marketing, this bias means that when a brand makes a product claim we automatically first believe it before we may decide that it’s false. When you say in an ad for electronic consumer goods that with a monthly subscription your TV is insured for life against damage, but in the conditions on the website it says that lifelong means "up to 7 years after purchase", then the consumer will feel cheated. Because he believed the statement in the ad by default. So, marketers should be aware that consumers will easily take their word for it. To build consumer trust it’s very important to be as honest and transparent in your claims.

    But the truth bias can also be bypassed: when people can report being unsure about the credibility of information the truth bias disappears. This means that people presume honesty unless triggered to suspect otherwise.

    Secondly, by default, we interpret new information in the light of what we already know. We search for meaning by looking at patterns and filling in the gaps.

    Advertisers don’t have to explicitly state the entire desired message, consumers can connect the dots. I bet you can even find meaning in these jumbled up words:

    It deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.

    The side effect is that we can misremember events or miss errors in communication if those errors are close enough to the truth. For example, we will answer "two" to the question ‘How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?’. Even if we know that it was Noah, not Moses. We focus so much on meaning that consumers remember the essence of an ad, not the exact wording.

    Thirdly, we rely on cues to help us make quick judgments about the truth of information. An important cue for us is the source. Who is telling me that a certain toothpaste helps my sensitive teeth? Does it come directly from the brand or is it a dentist who makes the claim? Some sources are perceived as being more credible or having more authority than others. That’s why in advertising experts are often used to make brand claims more credible, or why so many products use influencers to promote their products. However native advertisements make evaluating the credibility of the source more difficult. Is the source the credible website that provides the content or a brand or organization behind it?

    Still, depending on the source for credibility can be a problem. Most information we remember ‘pops to mind’, we know it, but we don’t remember who the source is. Source information is forgotten quickly.

    Finally, how easily information is processed is an important factor. How easier it is to process the more we regard it as evidence for truth. Repetition, easy language use, visual cues like simply adding a photo, contrast, and easier to read fonts, but also auditory cues like music, familiar accents, and rhymes can help process the fluency of advertisements. Rhyme is why the classic Heinz baked beans slogan ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ has lasted over 40 years.

    A Case For All Truth Principles

    When you’re marketing a product that has some rather ‘unbelievable’ but true selling propositions, you better do everything to increase the processing fluency and increase the chances of people believing your claim.

    Let’s look at this brand of cleaning products that promise to clean your house with no chemicals and only natural ingredients. Contrary to the dubious magic of the miracle sponge, this product really works as it says backed up by science but few believe it because they’re used to other more harsh products with great results.

    This brand can apply the four psychological principles to increase the chances of people believing their claim of ‘cleaning with nature’.

    • Truth bias: this effect doesn’t apply because people already have doubts since they’re used to the effectiveness of products with chemicals.
    • Meaning extraction bias: they must provide just enough information about the product, so people won’t have to fill in any gaps themselves.
    • Source reliability: they could work with so called ‘cleanfluencers’ to create a credible source with authority.
    • Processing fluency: their communication should be as fluent as possible. The execution of a campaign should work with visual and auditory cues to enhance fluency.

    Ethical watch-out

    Marketers and advertisers should keep these principles in mind when communicating to consumers. It gives a good prediction of how consumers will react to advertisements. By appealing to consumers' emotions and motivations the principles also give you some ‘power’ to make certain brand claims more persuasive. So, it goes without saying that this should be handled correctly. It's the responsibility of marketers to provide the most correct information to consumers and don’t trick them into believing false claims.

    Take-home points

    There are four general principles of cognition that impact when, why, and how people come to believe that information is true or false.

    • Truth bias: we tend to believe information, rather than second-guessing it immediately.
    • Meaning extraction bias: we’re always looking for meaning which is why we are filling in the gaps and making stories when information is sparse.
    • Source reliability: we strongly rely on the source to evaluate the credibility of information.
    • Processing fluency: the easier information is to process, the more truthful it seems to us.
  • Reference:

    Stanley, M. L., Whitehead, P. S., Marsh, E. J. (2022). The cognitive processes underlying false beliefs. Journal of Consumer Psychology. doi: 10.1002/JCPY.1289


    Further Reading

    • Could Projecting Your Preferences onto Prospects Make Your Market Prediction Inaccurate?

      Could Projecting Your Preferences onto Prospects Make Your Market Prediction Inaccurate?

      You may have heard the phrase “If you build it, they will come.” This assumes that the marketeer knows best and the market will recognize this and come to buy. If you, the marketeer, are in love with a product, it’s natural to project that love onto your target audience. However, it may be the right product at the wrong time, or just a product that doesn’t meet customers’ needs.


      Marketing managers are only human, and humans have their own personal preferences. These preferences can become a problem, however, when they project them onto a target market that may or may not share their preferences. As a result, they may miss out on capturing sales for a product that really resonates with their audience, while they focus on marketing something that is not as appealing to their prospects. This tendency is called the false consensus effect, or FCE. 

    • How to Increase Advertisement’s Effectiveness with Emphasizing Words

      How to Increase Advertisement’s Effectiveness with Emphasizing Words

      Day in day out we are exposed to advertising on radio, television, YouTube, and all the other communication channels. So, it is important that you not get annoyed by them, right? Speech plays an important role in this. In fact, most of the brand and advertising strategies are based on the announcer’s voice, as this is one of the most valuable assets in marketing. Announcers can point up the importance of critical information by vocally emphasizing the most important words of a message, which determines the advertisement’s effectiveness (Wiener & Chartrand, 2014). The emphasis strategy influences the cognitive processing of the listeners by increasing the duration of words, projecting them more intensely, or raising the pitch to a high tone (Nadeu & Hualde, 2012; Rodero & Potter, 2021). But can too much voice-over emphasis backfire?

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