How You Decide What’s True

We are bombarded daily with tons of information from a variety of sources. Naturally, we make quick decisions about what’s true, false, or unknowable. Psychologists have been working hard to figure out what methods we typically use to sort this info and I’m here to let you know what they’ve come up with.

Their findings boil down to what is now being called the “Big Five of Truth Judgement”.[1, p.75] These “Big Five” are the checkpoints we stop at to judge whether a claim is true or false. To name them all quickly, they are:

1 – Compatibility

2 – Coherence

3 – Credibility

4 – Consensus

5 – Evidence

The Scam

I’m going to use a story from my own life to illustrate how these five categories help us decide what’s true and what’s false. A few years ago, in 2018 or 2019, my grandfather was the target of an elaborate scam call.

The caller was somebody pretending to be me. They had a story about how I went to New Jersey for a friend’s wedding, got completely wasted, arrested, jailed, and now I needed $5,000 for bail. The reason given for contacting my grandfather was that I was too embarrassed by the whole situation to contact my dad about it.

It’s unclear just how much of the story my grandfather believed. He wasn’t shaken up by it enough to send any money, but he did call my dad to see if he was “aware of the situation”. Red flags went up immediately for my dad when he heard what was going on. He called the scammers back and was told the same story. When he asked about my height and my eye color, the scammers gave up and dropped the call. After that, he called me and we quickly recognized what was going on.

All of the “big five” can be seen in action here.

The initial story was compatible with my grandfather’s understanding of the world. He said that the first caller sounded like me and called him by his usual nickname. These two elements added credibility to the caller. The story was coherent. There were no internal contradictions. The tale began to fall apart when consensus was brought in. It was less compatible with my dad’s understanding of the world. He tested the credibility of the callers and checked in on me to gather evidence and expand the consensus.

All of these moving parts came together to create an example of how the Big Five can save a person from getting scammed. But that’s not all they can do for you. These five checkpoints can help you understand why you believe what you believe, as well as why other people believe what they believe.

Fundamentally, we decide what’s true based on the amount of green and red flags we get when evaluating information. Info that produces a string of green flags is more likely to be accepted as true than info that produces a string of red flags.

So how do we decide what’s true? Typically it’s by running information through one or more of the Big Five checkpoints.

Questions

Here’s a table showing the Big Five with questions that can be asked when evaluating each point:[1, p.74]

The Origins of the Big Five

To my understanding, the “Big Five” concept was originally proposed in 2014 by Professor Norbert Schwarz.[2]

References:

[1] – Greifeneder, Rainer, et al. The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation. 1st ed., Routledge, 2021. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/oa-edit/10.4324/9780429295379/psychology-fake-news-rainer-greifeneder-mariela-jaff%C3%A9-eryn-newman-norbert-schwarz. Accessed 13 May 2022.

[2] – Sorensen, Stephen. The “Big Five” of Truth Assessment (Ctruth, 8 Apr. 2022). https://ctruth.today/2022/04/08/the-big-five-of-truth-assessment/. Accessed 16 May 2022.

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