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Causality Heuristics in Resolving Ambiguous Situations

WorkgroupRealistic Depictions Lab

Social Processes Lab
Duration02/2017 – 12/2021
FundingSAW Postdoc Network on Cognitive Conflicts in Media Use, IWM budget resources
Project description

In times of fake news, it is particularly important to understand when and why people may believe in unconfirmed or suspected information. Here, we addressed the question of how people deal with possible causal explanations (e.g. in news headlines), that are – up to today - unexplained. When are (confirmed) facts being valued and treated differently than mere suspicions? And when do different stages of certainty of explanations may become blurred?

The so-called illusory truth effect describes the phenomenon that the subjective truth of a statement increases due to its mere repetition (i.e. familiarity). The familiarity of a content (i.e. its mere presence in memory) thus often serves as a heuristic indication of its subjective truth. Prior work investigated how people process and are influenced by statements that were formulated as facts and expressed by sources with varying credibility. But do the same processes apply to sources which mention a statement but also signify doubt about its content? The present project sought to investigate how such linguistic uncertainty (the so-called epistemic modality of a statement) influences people’s beliefs about what is true or false. How do people perceive, remember and are influenced by (apparent) facts in comparison to mere suspicions? To address these questions, we investigated the role of a statement’s epistemic modality and its familiarity in rather realistic contexts, such as news headlines about explanations for ambiguous events.
Doing so, we sought to contribute to a better understanding of how people deal with uncertain information, of the processes involved in determining the subjective truth of possible explanations, and potential interventions in case of false conclusions. The aim was to understand the conditions that promote or hinder the use of familiarity heuristics as an indicator of truth.


Brand, A.-K., Meyerhoff, H. S., Holl, F., & Scholl, A. (in press). When linguistic uncertainty spreads across pieces of information: Remembering facts on the news as speculation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

Brand, A.-K., Scholl, A., & Meyerhoff, H. S. (2022). In case of doubt for the speculation? When people falsely remember facts in the news as being uncertain. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(4), 852-871. [Data] request document