People Are More Swayed by Things That Look Sciencey

By Elizabeth Preston | October 17, 2014 7:55 am

impressive beakers

Anyone who’s paged through a women’s magazine will recognize this strategy: to make a product seem better, surround it with a scientific glow. “Clinical trials show lashes grow up to 400% fuller!” “27% reduction of dark spots in 10 weeks!” “Ceramides!” Does this actually help convince people to hand over their cash? A study using promotions for fake drugs suggests that might be the case.

“Graphs equal truthiness,” says Aner Tal, a  researcher at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. “That’s actually where this research was born.” When giving academic presentations, he says, he’s always been encouraged to use more graphs, numbers, and figures to make his arguments convincing. If other academics are swayed by these scientific-looking additions, what about consumers?

Along with lab director Brian Wansink, Tal wrote up a description of an imaginary new drug. Then they recruited 61 people to read about it. “A large pharmaceutical company has recently developed a new drug to boost people’s immune function,” the subjects read. In trials, people who took this pretend drug had only a 47% chance of coming down with the common cold, compared to 87% if they didn’t take the drug.

For half of Tal’s subjects, this was all the information they got. The other half of people saw the “trial” results reinforced with a bare-bones bar graph:

bar graph

Afterward, subjects filled out a questionnaire: On a 9-point scale, “How effective is the medication?” And, yes or no: “Does this medication really reduce illness?”

Even though subjects who saw a bar graph got the exact same numbers and other information as the graph-less subjects, they rated the drug’s effectiveness a little higher. The more dramatic result came from the yes/no question. About 68% of text-only subjects said that yes, they thought the medication reduced illness. Among subjects who saw the bar graph, 97%—all but one person—said yes.

It was possible, though, that subjects who saw a graph were more convinced simply because the information was repeated. So the researchers did the experiment again. This time, subjects who didn’t see a bar graph saw the numbers repeated in the text instead.

Once again, subjects who saw bar graphs were more enthusiastic about the imaginary drug, rating its effectiveness significantly higher. It wasn’t because they’d retained the information better. When quizzed, both groups could remember the numbers from the trial results equally well.

But when researchers asked subjects to rate their agreement with the statement “I believe in science” on a scale of 1 to 9, they did find something: people who said they believed more strongly in science were more swayed by the bar graph.

The researchers still wondered whether the effect might come from the presence of a picture—any kind of picture—and not the scientific impression that picture gave. So they tried a third experiment. This time, subjects read about a fictional anti-inflammatory drug. In the description, half of them read: “The drug’s chemical is C21H29FO5, meaning it’s carbon-oxygen-Helium-and-fluorine based.” The other half saw the exact same description, minus the chemical formula “C21H29FO5.”

Afterward, researchers asked the subjects how many hours they thought the drug’s effects would last. The results this time were surprising, Tal says. People who only saw the names of molecules, but no formula, estimated the drug would work for a little under 4 hours on average. But people who saw a chemical formula estimated that it would work for almost 6 hours. “A more than 50% increase!” Tal says.

With a chemical formula, people may have been especially persuaded because they didn’t really understand what it meant. In earlier studies, technical jargon increased people’s belief in a scientific claim. So did brain images. When people don’t understand what they’re seeing and reading, they may assume the source of the information is an expert, and therefore trustworthy.

But the bar graphs that Tal showed his subjects couldn’t have been simpler. He thinks they worked because people see a “halo of scientific validity” when they read materials that include scientific-looking elements like charts or formulas. The effect may be especially strong when those people consider themselves believers in science.

The obvious moral for consumers is to watch out for advertising that tries to persuade with an aura of science. But there’s a message for science writers and communicators too, Tal says, “which is to be careful about what they present.” When scientific studies are conveyed to a general audience, they’re often presented as “absolute conclusive truth,” he says, even though reality is more complicated. “As the people who channel information from the researchers to the public, science communicators have an important role to play.”

Or if you only care about convincing people, Tal says, “Use more graphs!”

convincing graph

Images: Top, James Vaughan (via Flickr); others, Tal & Wansink.

Tal, A., & Wansink, B. (2014). Blinded with science: Trivial graphs and formulas increase ad persuasiveness and belief in product efficacy. Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662514549688

  • Uncle Al

    The drug’s chemical is C21H29FO5, meaning it’s carbon-oxygen-Helium-and-fluorine based.” Helium? Hydrogen; 6-α-fluorocortisol.

    • Nhật Ooker

      I must say that I believe in you more than the experiment. Mostly because of the picture of the molcule.

  • axelbeingcivil

    … Helium-based? The heck are they using to manufacture this stuff? For that matter, how are they keeping it from combusting?

    More seriously, this doesn’t surprise me; how you present something makes a big difference. Graphs just assemble data more clearly for you and help make things clear (or obfuscate them, as the case may be).

    • Christian Wimber

      Did they really see it more clearly?

      “When quizzed, both groups could remember the numbers from the trial results equally well.”

      If a chart or graph made things ‘clearer’, I would expect a greater retention of the numbers from the charts/graphs group.

      It almost seems as though the numbers and the charts are being processed by the brain as two seperate pieces of information. Rather than just two different representations of the same numbers, they act as corroborating pieces of evidence.

  • Cincy_Driver

    But how does this fit in with all of the marketing studies that say most buying decisions are made on emotional grounds rather than rational ones?

    • Christian Wimber

      I don’t know if I would say that charts and graphs are appreciated for their rationality. To me, it actually tells us something about the “conviction” or “seriousness” of the the scientists involved.

      “Look here, this person is so confident in their numbers that they made a picture to represent them! I’ll believe anything they tell me!”

    • Elizabeth Preston

      The idea here isn’t that people are making rational decisions–they’re not consciously saying, “I saw a graph, so the product must be good”–but that the visual cue of a graph or formula gives them a better general impression of the product. Maybe you could call it a gut feeling.

  • NA

    The Stupids tend to blindly trust people who seem smarter than they are because, umm, science is like, really hard and stuff.

  • Ralph Carlson

    For me, its simply that the AD/ scientists lied. I think that we want people to have more faith in scientific findings than just “hearsay. I have a science background and always try to dig a little deeper into the science, but for most people, what are they suppose to do/ think?
    The article could be entitled; ” How consumers respond when scientists/ companies lie to them in words and charts?”

  • Tohmsa Hatrman

    Truthiness has always been part of advertising. I suppose sciencey is a natural progression.

    Lying is what it really is, of course.



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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