New research warns: beware of trivial graphs and formulas

We mentioned earlier on that some research suggests that people tend to believe something more if there are brain images included, although the research isn’t that conclusive. Published this week in Public Understanding of Science, the Cornell Food and Brand Lab study found trivial graphs or formulas accompanying medical information can lead consumers to believe products are more effective.

From the press release:

“Your faith in science may actually make you more likely to trust information that appears scientific but really doesn’t tell you much,” said lead author Aner Tal, post-doctoral researcher at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “Anything that looks scientific can make information you read a lot more convincing.”

The study showed that when a graph — with no new information — was added to the description of a medication, 96.6 percent of people believed that the medicines were effective in reducing illness verses 67.7 percent of people who were shown the product information without the graph.

“Even those with professed faith in science were more likely to be swayed by trivial scientific looking product information,” said Tal. “In fact, the more people believed in science, the more they were convinced by the graphs. What this means is that when you read claims about new products, whether it’s a medication or a new technology, you should ask yourself, ‘where does this information come from?’, ‘what’s the basis for the claims being made?’ Don’t let things that look scientific but don’t really tell you much fool you. Sometimes a graph is just a graph!”

Abstract of the research:

The appearance of being scientific can increase persuasiveness. Even trivial cues can create such an appearance of a scientific basis. In our studies, including simple elements, such as graphs (Studies 1–2) or a chemical formula (Study 3), increased belief in a medication’s efficacy. This appears to be due to the association of such elements with science, rather than increased comprehensibility, use of visuals, or recall. Belief in science moderates the persuasive effect of graphs, such that people who have a greater belief in science are more affected by the presence of graphs (Study 2). Overall, the studies contribute to past research by demonstrating that even trivial elements can increase public persuasion despite their not truly indicating scientific expertise or objective support.

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