Why look up the facts when you can find “truthiness” in a name? The same scientists who discovered that photographs lend legitimacy to all kinds of claims have discovered a new route
to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” which is the gut feeling that something is true regardless of what the facts support.

Irvine, Calif., Feb. 26, 2014 – Why look up the facts when you can find “truthiness” in a name? The same scientists who discovered that photographs lend legitimacy to all kinds of claims have discovered a new route to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” which is the gut feeling that something is true regardless of what the facts support.

A new, UC Irvine-led study found that people trust strangers with easier-to-pronounce names more than strangers with difficult-to-pronounce names – even when those strangers are from the same foreign country.

What’s more, people are more likely to trust claims when attributed to strangers with easier names. For example, the assertion that “macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches” was more believable when attributed to “Andrian Babeshko” than when it was credited to his countryman “Czeslaw Ratynska.”

The findings appear in the current issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers scoured newspaper articles and websites to create fictitious pairs of names from various regions around the world, including the Middle East, Asia and Europe. In each pair, one name was easy to pronounce and the other difficult.

They then examined people’s responses to the name pairs. In one experiment, participants imagined they were tourists looking for a reliable, safe tour guide. In another test, participants were asked to decide how dangerous each person on a list of strangers was, based on nothing but his or her name.

“In each experiment, strangers with easy-to-pronounce names were judged as being more familiar, more trustworthy and safer,” said Eryn Newman, a postdoctoral fellow in UC Irvine’s Department of Criminology, Law & Society and the study’s lead author. “But what was most surprising is that the pronunciation of names had effects that extended beyond the name. People actually thought claims attributed to easy-to-pronounce names were more likely to be true.”

She said the phenomenon isn’t confined to people’s names either: “When we encounter new information, how easy or difficult it is to process plays an important role in all sorts of situations. For example, research shows people think that food additives with easier names are safer than those with difficult names.”

“To the Fred Flintstone parts of our brains, that feeling of familiarity signals something that we can trust,” Newman said. “But information that’s difficult to process signals danger.”

The study builds upon previous findings on the wide range of benefits enjoyed by people with easy-to-pronounce names, such as being perceived as more likable, more electable and more accomplished.

“What we now know from these results, however, is that the consequences of easy-to-pronounce names reach much further than previously thought. Just think of the situations in which pronounceability could have a significant impact on people’s lives. For example, we might ask whether the pronounceability of eyewitnesses’ names influences jury verdicts,” Newman said.

Supported by a grant from the Marsden Fund, the study was conducted by psychology researchers from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Canada.

About the University of California, Irvine: Located in coastal Orange County, near a thriving high-tech hub in one of the nation’s safest cities, UC Irvine was founded in 1965. One of only 62 members of the Association of American Universities, it’s ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UC Irvine has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.3 billion annually to the local economy.

Media access: UC Irvine maintains an online directory of faculty available as experts to the media at http://communications.uci.edu/for-journalists/experts/. Radio programs/stations may, for a fee, use an on-campus ISDN line to interview UC Irvine faculty and experts, subject to availability and university approval. For more UC Irvine news, visit news.uci.edu. Additional resources for journalists may be found at communications.uci.edu/for-journalists.

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