Why Americans Will Believe Anything You Tell Them, in One Chart

Americans, those healthy, often oblivious consumers of marketing, are perfectly happy to agree with whatever you tell them, as long as there’s a chart accompanying your statement, says new research (and charts).

People were more likely to believe a description of a drug’s benefits when it was accompanied by a graph that added no new information, according to a study by Cornell University researchers published this month in the journal Public Understanding of Science.

In a series of three experiments, researchers Aner Tal and Brian Wansink showed study participants different versions of a description of a cold medicine. Of the group that saw the description with an effectively useless chart, 97 percent believed the medicine was efficient, compared to 68 percent of the group that read only words, with no graphic. The researchers, from Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, surveyed a total of 174 participants, most of whom had at least some college education.

Public Understanding of Science

I get science, you might be telling yourself right now, stroking your chin and doing long division. Unfortunately for you, me, and all of Twitter, thinking you are smart does not make you smart. People who said they “believe in science” were even more confident about the medication once they saw it described in a meaningless chart.

For those of you who like words just fine, but don’t really trust them, see the chart below for empirical proof that the study’s findings are true.

Charts aren’t the only things that lure people into embracing ideas. Just being given a hint that science is involved in something can make it more palatable, researchers found. When they included the drug Florinef’s chemical formula—C21H29FO5—in a description of it, people thought its effects would last two hours longer than when the formula was omitted. (“It’s carbon-oxygen-Helium and-fluorine based,” read the formula-free description of the seemingly less-effective drug.)

No word so far as to whether people who, for some reason, wear chemical compounds on t-shirts are trusted by anyone.

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