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Letter patterns alter the perception of truth

Letter patterns alter the perception of truth

The phrase “A causes B” appears in a lot of statements that consumers come across in life, whether they are marketing claims, official warnings, “fake news,” or actual newspaper headlines regarding consumer goods. Examples of such claims include “Hillary eradicates Muslims,” “Advil removes pain,” and “Coffee prevents sadness.” Consumers frequently determine whether a claim is genuine or false without reading the reasons in support of the claim or conducting more research because they are cognitive misers.

Previous research has shown that some incidental elements, such as a statement’s repetition, might affect how true people perceive it to be. People tend to view repeated statements as being truer than ones that are only displayed once. Another component is the perceptual fluency of the physical stimulus that is being processed, such as the readability of the font style in the visual stimulus or the optical contrast resolution or visual clarity of the printed type. The ability to digest information fluently, regardless of how it is received, can have an impact on truth judgements and marketing outcomes.

One notable aspect of how people’s minds arrange information is that there is a systematic process by which we temporally and spatially represent symbols and other inputs in “natural language,” according to the research on symbolic and numeric cognition. 

As an illustration, increasing Arabic numerals are overlearned and cognitively represented as natural numbers on a mental number line that runs from left to right, with lower numbers on the left and higher numbers on the right.

Additionally, letters are overlearned and cognitively represented on an alphabet line from left to right, with the letters A and B being arbitrarily put on the left side of the mental line and all other letters appearing on the right side.

We propose the consumer phenomenon of symbolic sequence effects, such that brand claims, or statements in general, containing initial letters that conform to the arbitrary “abcde” sequence (e.g., Andrenogel increases Testosterone) might be perceived as more truthful, compared with a causality statement that does not conform to such sequence (e.g., Undrenogel increases Testosterone).

The order of the letters has now been identified by researchers as one of the subtle psychological factors that affect whether individuals believe a claim to be genuine or untrue. The researchers were aware, based on prior studies, that the brain makes an effort to arrange information in ways that adhere to known patterns and sequences. The research hypothesized that assertions with first letters adhering to the arbitrary “ABCD” sequence (such as “Andrenogel Increases Testosterone”) would be seen as more honest. The alphabet is one of the most widespread, well-known patterns.

We go about our lives looking for natural sequences, and when we find a match to one of these patterns, it feels right. [..] An embedded alphabetic sequence, even if unconsciously perceived, feels like a safe haven, and our brains can make unconscious judgments that cause-and-effect statements following this pattern are true.

Dan King, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

One group of participants read 10 claims that adhered to the natural alphabetic sequence, such as “Befferil Eases Pain” or “Aspen Moisturizes Skin,” while the control group read statements that did not follow the natural alphabetic sequence, such as “Vufferil Eases Pain” or “Vaspen Moisturizes Skin,” in order to test this “symbolic sequence effect.” The truthfulness of the allegations was then evaluated by both groups. Even though participants were unable to identify the source of the sensation of honesty, the truthfulness scores were much higher for the assertions that were presented in alphabetical order.

The next step was to see if the researchers might impact a person’s impression of a claim’s authenticity by momentarily changing the brain’s pattern recognition mechanism. In this experiment, two groups of volunteers saw different versions of a brief video clip with the alphabet being sung normally and reversed, respectively. The groups then graded the validity of 10 allegations. Participants who had heard the alphabet sung in reverse scored the statements that came after it with greater veracity ratings, such as “Uccuprin Strengthens Heart.”

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The research implies that businesses would be better able to persuade customers that a slogan or claim is accurate if the causal statement is presented in an alphabetical sequence, according to King. However, the false news interpretation is more ominous. Even if they are false, headlines featuring cause-and-effect claims in alphabetical sequence may seem more credible.

Consumers need to make evaluations based on fact or experimental evidence rather than whether something feels right. [..]The alphabet is a random, arbitrary sequence we have learned, and it can play tricks on the brain when it comes to making judgments.

Dan King, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Symbolic Sequence Effects on Consumers’ Judgments of Truth for Brand Claims. Dan King, Sumitra Auschaitrakul.

Published: August 2019
DOI: 10.1002/jcpy.1132

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