The Illusory Truth Effect

by Ron Potter

Not everything we believe is true. We may act like it is and it may be uncomfortable to think otherwise, but it’s inevitable that we all hold a substantial number of beliefs that aren’t objectively true. It’s not about opinions or different perspectives. We can pick up false beliefs for the simple reason that we’ve heard them a lot.”

This is a quote by Shane Parrish, blogger at Farnam Street.  Shane was the first blogger that I followed and one reason I turned to him is his focus on critical thinking.  What I mean by critical thinking is his ability to examine where his own thoughts start and progress.

Illusory truth effect

Shane points out reasons.  “The illusory truth effect is the reason why advertising works and why propaganda is one of the most powerful tools for controlling how people think. It’s why the speech of politicians can be bizarre and multiple-choice tests can cause students problems later on. It’s why fake news spreads and retractions of misinformation don’t work.”  I don’t intend to turn this blog into a political statement but his point is a good one.  We can get caught up in the belief of the day very easily.

Why does the effect exist?

“As with other cognitive shortcuts, the typical explanation is that it’s a way our brains save energy. Thinking is hard work—remember that the human brain uses up about 20% of an individual’s energy, despite accounting for just 2% of their body weight.

The illusory truth effect comes down to processing fluency. When a thought is easier to process, it requires our brains to use less energy, which leads us to prefer it.  That means that processing them was easier for their brains.”

Cause of misinformation

This can become a harsh reality on business teams that must be guarded against.  Why does it happen in the first place,  especially when team members are smart and well-intended?  “It’s the result of people being overworked or in a hurry and unable to do due diligence.  The signal to noise ratio is so skewed that we have a hard time figuring out what to pay attention to and what we should ignore. No one has time to verify everything.”

Cure for misinformation

As a business that must make decisions based on the truth, how do we sort it out and make sure we’re making good decisions?


First, understand that this susceptibility to illusory truth is very natural.  It happens to everyone.  Agree that no one is above the siren call and all are susceptible.  There is no one (except GOD) who knows it all!

Second, share your illusory truth and label it as such.  It’s not that any person on the team knows the truth and all others are working with a handicap, even the boss.  It’s that we all work with our illusory truths.

Once the illusory truth is shared by each member we can

  • Begin to understand where that person is coming from
  • Begin to form the truth (or at least a team illusory truth)
  • Make some action plans

While it’s natural that every person has their illusory truth, it’s also natural that every team has their illusory truth as well.  You may make a team decision or commitment to an illusory truth and that’s OK.  As long as you know it’s based on illusory truth and not what’s true or false.

Get all the illusory truth on the table by sharing.  Make a team decision and commitment.  This may be based on real or illusory truth.  Make sure it’s identified properly.  And no matter which type of truth the decision is made upon, make sure there is a team commitment to the decision.  Commitment is what’s important.

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