Social Status Affects Who We Choose to Believe

Scientific American

Click here to listen to this podcast

[Audio clip of President Reagan saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”]

Sounds pretty powerful. You might believe it will actually happen.

But what if this guy were to say the same thing: [Audio clip of ordinary guy saying the same thing]

Hmmm. Maybe not so much. Because a study finds that the social status of a speaker makes a significant difference in how we interpret statements they make.

Scientists showed participants clips of political statements, that were either true or false, made by a top politician, a news anchor or just your average joe. The participants also watched another set of videos, this time of the same people making true or false statements about general world information like, “Fidel Castro is a pop singer.”  

The subjects were more likely to accept the false statement coming from the political figure as opposed to the other speakers (including the news anchor!) However, participants did not accept any false world knowledge statements from any of the speakers. Brain recordings of the subjects reveal that their impressions of the speaker and what he or she says, happens fast, within 150 to 450 milliseconds, which is within average reflex reaction time for humans. The study is in the journal PLoS One.

Of course, given enough time, even a politician’s biggest supporter will accept that something he said isn’t true: [Audio clip of President Clinton saying: "I want you to listen to me, I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."]

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs.
Visit for the latest in science, health and technology news.

© 2013 All rights reserved.