This thought experiment could prove to you how bad you are at fact-checking.

Can you answer these simple questions?

  1. How many of each animal did Moses take onto the Ark?
  1. Which Pacific island was Captain Hook executed on?
  1. Which year did Lance Armstrong walk on the moon?

If your answers to the above questions were: “two,” “Hawaii,” and “1969.” Congratulations: you’re WRONG! Not only are you wrong, you probably didn’t notice that the questions themselves were wrong. You’ve now realized that it was Noah who built the ark, not Moses; Captain Cook was killed on Hawaii, and not Captain Hook; and it was Neil Armstrong who walked on the moon, not Lance Armstrong. But why did the questions trick you? It’s all in how your brain processes information.

You’re About To Read This. Aren’t You?

Confused? This thought experiment is known as the “Moses Illusion.” It’s just a pretty quirky way of proving how bad you are at fact-checking. For so long, researchers have tricked countless volunteers into countless experiments with this trickery. It isn’t quite obvious how people fail these seemingly simple yet thought-provoking quizzes, and researchers have in any way tried to find out what circumstances make people fall prey to identifying false information.

This illusion was first tested in a 1981 study when researchers found that 80 percent of volunteers couldn’t identify the fact that Moses wasn’t involved in the Ark, even though they had previously proven to the researchers that they know the answer earlier. The volunteers — despite having to answer correctly — either had to answer the questions with, “I don’t know,” if they actually didn’t know the answer, or “that’s wrong,” if there was something wrong with the question.

Moses and the Ark tricked volunteers the most, and only around 40 percent of volunteers were tricked by questions like “What’s the nationality of Thomas Edison, inventor of the telephone?” So why on Earth are you so bad at fact-checking, and simply failing to answer questions that the average fifth-grader could easily answer? Short answer: you’re dumb! Nonetheless.

Fool Me Once, Don’t Fool Me Again

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus

In a 2000 study published in the Journal of Psychological Science, researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) found that there are two means of being tricked by this thought experiment. First, if the swapped names are semantically similar (on the same topic, like that of both Moses and Noah are from the Bible); and second, if they are phonologically similar (sound the same, like the first two syllables of Moses and Noah have an emphasis on the “o” sound). Researchers later dubbed this the “Mega-Moses Illusion.”

There was another question that also swapped the names of “Andrew Johnson” for “Lyndon Johnson” — both of which were ex-vice Presidents of the United States — with two syllables in both their first names and having the same last name, too. This tricked more volunteers than the questions with just one syllable or element at play. In our second question, for instance, swapping “Captain Hook” for “Captain Cook” made it easy to play and prey on you, huh? Both are voyagers, but the odd difference is, that one is real and the other fiction. Guess who? This illusion is pretty easy to play, and it seems researchers like playing tricks, huh? Yes indeed.

In an article she published in The Conversation, psychologist Lisa Fazio of the University of Vanderbilt found that an illusion like this can lead people to pick up false information about the world. In her experiment, volunteers read fictional stories that made reference to things like “padding around the largest ocean, the Atlantic,” and this made them say the Atlantic was the world’s largest ocean, even though they had answered correctly that the Pacific was, in a test a couple of weeks earlier.

You’re Done Reading This. Are You?

What’s even worse? Several attempts to help people get the answers correct have all failed. Some researchers even tried giving volunteers more time to carefully read through, even highlighting important words with different colors, and all these made volunteers more likely to answer incorrectly. Fortunately enough, when you’re asked to play fact-checkers while you scroll through social media feed full of “fake news,” your mind is then geared towards checking errors rather than answering questions correctly.

And it sure does help, you’re less likely to pick up false information than just reading whatever you’re given. The takeaway: assume whatever you hear or read could be wrong, so checking for accuracy is your safe bet to ensure that you’re not tricked. By so doing, you’ll less likely answer that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the founder and CEO of Factionary.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sat, Apr 27, 2019.

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