The study, published in Public Understanding of Science and performed by Professor Brian Wansink and his team at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, assessed how consumers react to scientific information about a product by testing reactions to information about ‘a new medication’.
In a series of three experiments, the team found that presenting consumers with ‘scientific looking’ information such as graphs or formulas increased product confidence.
"Anything that looks scientific can make information you read a lot more convincing," said study lead author Aner Tal, PhD. "The scientific halo of graphs, formulas, and other trivial elements that look scientific may lead to misplaced belief."
"A general faith in science may lead people to believe things that just look scientific, but aren't," he warned.
Tal and his colleagues tested how consumers react to ‘scientific looking information’ in a series of three experiments. The first recruited 61 individuals to read information about a new medication.
Half of the participants read a paragraph about the medication and the other half read the same paragraph with an accompanying graph. The graph did not provide any new information. Afterwards participants were asked: "Does the medication really reduce illness?"
The team found that using a graph, which did not present any new information, helped to convince almost all of the participants that the medication worked. Indeed, 96.6% of those who saw the graph believed that the medication would effectively reduce illness, whereas only 67.7% of those who saw only the text believed that that it would reduce illness.
Two additional studies were then performed to support the researchers' hypotheses that individuals are influenced by "scientific looking" elements not because they help with understanding or information retention, but because "scientific looking" information is perceived as true.
In the second study 56 participants were presented with either the paragraph and graph from the first study or just with the paragraph with an added sentence repeating that the medication reduced illness by 20%. Afterwards all participants were asked to estimate how much the medication reduced illness and their level of agreement with the statement: "I believe in science."
They found that the retention of information was the same for both groups – suggesting that the graphs did not appear to increase their understanding of the information or their recall of the percentage by which it reduced illness.
However, those who indicated a belief in science and who were shown the graph expressed the strongest confidence in the effectiveness of the medication, said the team.
This shows that belief in science can make individuals more likely to be persuaded by trivial, ‘scientific looking’ graphs, they explained.
In a third study the paragraph was shown to participants as in the two prior studies. This time, instead of a graph, half of the 57 participants in this study were given the chemical formula of the drug's active ingredient. Those who were shown the chemical formula believed the medication would work for 2 hours longer than those who were given its text description: 5.9 hours vs. 3.8 hours - an increase of 56.8%.
According to the Cornell team, this supports the idea that increased confidence was due to participants' trust in information that appears to add scientific validity.
“Don't let things that look scientific but don't really tell you much fool you,” warned Tal. “Sometimes a graph is just a graph! Scrutinize what you read so that you're not blinded by what looks like science, but might not be!"
Source: Public Understanding of Science
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1177/0963662514549688
“Blinded with science: Trivial graphs and formulas increase ad persuasiveness and belief in product efficacy”
Authors: A. Tal, B. Wansink