Eureka Moments Have A “Dark Side”: They Can Make False Facts Seem True

GettyImages-493584274.jpgBy Matthew Warren

We love a puzzle here at Research Digest — so here’s a couple from a recent paper in Cognition. See whether you can unscramble the anagrams in the following sentences (read on for the answers!):

The Cocos Islands are part of idnionsea

eeebyoshn kill more people worldwide each year than all poisonous snakes combined

If you successfully solved the anagrams, you may have experienced an “Aha!” or “Eureka” moment: a flash of insight where the solution suddenly becomes clear, perhaps after you have spent a while completely stumped. Usually when we experience these moments we have indeed arrived at the correct answer — they don’t tend to occur as much when we’ve stumbled upon an incorrect solution. And in fact, researchers have suggested that we even use Aha! moments as a quick way to judge the veracity of a solution or idea — they provide a kind of gut feeling which tells us that what has just popped into our mind is probably correct.

But relying on these experiences to gauge the truth of an idea can sometimes backfire, according to the authors of the new paper. The team found that experiencing sudden moments of insight when deciphering a statement can make people more likely to believe that it is true — even when it isn’t.

Ruben Laukkonen at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and colleagues gave participants 26 statements containing anagrams, such as those above. The participants had 20 seconds to try and solve the anagrams; if they didn’t solve them in this time then they were shown the answer. They then had to indicate whether they had experienced an Aha! moment while working out the anagram, and to judge how true the statement was. Only half of the propositions were, in fact, true (yes, honeybees do kill more people than snakes), while the other half were false (no, the Cocos Islands are not part of Indonesia – they’re an Australian territory).

When participants successfully solved the anagram — on about 60% of trials — they rated the statements as more true than when they failed to figure it out. This effect held regardless of whether the statement was actually true or false.

On 39% of trials, participants also experienced that satisfying Aha! moment. And in these cases, participants were even more inclined to believe the statement, giving higher ratings of truth compared to those trials where they had correctly solved the anagram but hadn’t experienced that sudden insight.

These findings suggest that people tended to misinterpret the Aha! moment they got from solving the anagram as an indication that the statement itself was true. “People…may turn to their Aha! experiences as a shortcut in place of a lengthy and effortful review of the evidence,” the researchers write. Of course, this tendency to overgeneralise based on our feelings of insight can be a problem: it can make us more likely to incorrectly believe that that false information is true.

And the results also imply that that people who want to actively mislead or persuade us could hijack this phenomenon. “Presentations, news articles, advertising, and other media, may seek to exploit experiences of insight as a tool of persuasion,” the team writes. Perhaps this is already happening: think, for example, about the clever ads you often see inside buses and Tube trains — the ones that contain little riddles or take a moment to “get”. It remains to be seen whether there are any particular strategies that could help us avoid falling prey to this “dark side” of Aha! moments.

The dark side of Eureka: Artificially induced Aha moments make facts feel true

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest


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