New study finds 'truthiness' in people's names

Wed, Feb 26, 2014

British Columbia, Canada – A KPU researcher is one of several scientists who have come out with a study that shows people’s tendency toward ‘truthiness’ – a term coined by political satirist Stephen Colbert as truth that comes “from the gut.”

Kwantlen Polytechnic University faculty member Daniel Bernstein was part of an international team of researchers who found that people trust strangers with names that are easier to pronounce more than strangers with names that are difficult to pronounce, even when those strangers are from the same foreign country. The study also found that people are more likely to trust claims when attributed to strangers with easier names.

“In each experiment strangers with easy to pronounce names were judged as being more familiar, trustworthy and safer,” says the study’s lead author Eryn Newman, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of California Irvine’s department of criminology, law and society. “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.”

Claims like “macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches,” for example, was found to be more believable when attributed to the less difficult name Andrian Babeshko than when it was credited to Andrian’s countryman, Czeslaw Ratynska.

To conduct the study, 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, the other difficult. Andrian Babeshko was the easier name in an eastern European pair, and Czeslaw Ratynska the more difficult.

Researchers then examined people’s responses to the pairs. In one experiment, participants imagined they were tourists looking for a reliable, safe tour guide. In another experiment, participants were asked to decide how dangerous a list of strangers were, based on no additional information other than the names supplied.

According to the researchers, the findings (published today in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE) show that information that is easy to process seems more familiar to us than information that is difficult to process.

“To the Fred Flintstone parts of our brains that feeling of familiarity signals something that we can trust. But information that is difficult to process signals danger,” says Newman, who adds that this phenomenon isn’t confined to people’s names.

“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,” she says.

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 likeable, 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,” says Newman.

“The findings point to ways in which subtle changes in how we process information affect everyday judgments. Although we didn't test this, one could imagine how the pronounceability of someone's name affects how likely it is that he or she receives a mortgage, or is chosen for a job or an award,” adds Bernstein.

The study was conducted by a team of psychology researchers from the University of California, Irvine; New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, and; Kwantlen Polytechnic University, with support by a grant from the Marsden Fund.

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