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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
Bell, J; Flinn, C; Green, C; Jones, K; King, W.J; Toebben, L (2012). Does the Source Make It True? Busting the Truthiness Effect with Political Statements . National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 15. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 26, 2023 .

Does the Source Make It True? Busting the Truthiness Effect with Political Statements
Jarad Bell, Cassie Flinn, Cara Green, Kimberly Jones, William (B.J.) King, and Lisa Toebben
Department of Psychology Missouri Western State University

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)

Truthiness is a term coined by the political satirist, Stephen Colbert, describing the phenomenon in which people trust their gut feelings instead of basing decisions on evidence. The purpose of the current study is to assess the robustness of the truthiness effect when evaluating the accuracy of statements made by politicians. Bernstein, Garry, Kantner, Lindsay, and Newman (2012) suggest the presence of any kind of additional image with a statement should increase the likelihood of judging the statement as true. Sixty statements from politifact.com were selected so that half were fact-checked as True or Mostly-True and half were False or Pants-on-Fire.  Participants could be presented with the name of the speaker, an image of the political figure taken from the politifact web site, and/or a news logo. This resulted in a 4 (Fox, MSNBC, Onion, None) x 2 (pictures, no picture) x 2 (name, no name) repeated measures design. Eighty-Four participants received all 60 statements in a random order with a random condition and judged whether the statement was true. The presence of an image, news logo, and/or name of speaker did not increase the likelihood of judging a statement as true. In fact, there were no significant main effects or interactions despite the analysis having a power of nearly one for six of the seven effects. Given this large power, it appears as if the truthiness effect is not as robust as previously believed, and it may not apply to political statements or many other situations.

Does the Source Make it True?

Busting the Truthiness Effect with Political Statements.

Stephen Colbert, a comedian and political satirist, has coined the term “truthiness” which suggests that people tend to trust their instincts and predispositions without access to factual evidence. These evaluations are often made with uncertainty and feelings that are subject to prejudice, outlooks, and opinions (Bernstein, Garry, Kantner, Lindsay, and Newman, 2012). This makes sense, especially when one does not have access to evidence, or it is not convenient to do so, because they have little else to rely on in making their judgments.

According to Brown and Nix (1996) if a statement is repeated enough times a person will soon believe it as true. People tend to use general familiarity and a specific source in determining if an item is true or not. The idea of repetitiveness is important, because in our world of technology, fast informational access, it is easy to see rumors, biases and falsehoods, often and repeatedly. It has been discovered that people rate items as more truthful and trustworthy if they have seen them before, no matter what the level of truth actually is (Brown & Nix, 1996, p. 1088). Not all judgments are so intuitive and effortless; some judgments are made with a lot of thought.  Using a deliberate way to make judgments is not like making quick judgments of truthiness (Gigerenzer & Kruglanski, 2011, p. 97).

These two types of making judgments may very well apply to trust in news organizations. Williams (2012) found that trust in television news does not seem to depend upon the news commentators, but it is strongly tied to who is associated with, and sponsoring, the news network. This makes sense because it is a fast way to make a judgment on whether or not a news source may be biased. For example, no one may really know about the personal life and belief of a news reporter, but they would be more likely to know what the sponsors stand for, which could lead to a spectator critically looking at the type of news being presented. If statements are related to different news organizations and people, opinions about the sources may affect the level of trust in the statements. Past knowledge about these organizations, people, and their sponsors may affect the way in which our study plays out. This would represent a more critical way of thinking and making judgments.

In a large study of college students (Jarvis, Stroud, & Gilliland, 2009), it was found that these students preferred to look at news that was convenient, like the web, and that they only made slight distinctions between the sources they chose to look at. They reported to get most of their news from the web, comedy television news, and often for entertainment purposes. Also, the study did not necessarily trust the sources that were as most frequently referred to. The indicated study shows a more intuitive way of looking at news media and making judgments about its truth. This may indicate that people do not pay much attention to the news sources, logos that are presented, or people named or pictured when they are given information. During the 2010 election, people believed they were frequently given misleading and untrue statements about the election (Weiss, 2011). They also believe that this sort of bad information is on the rise. This can explain the development of websites like politifact.com and a general decline in trust of the news and of politicians.

As mentioned above by Weiss (2011) due to bad information, a negative impact within this study may show in the results. This may prelude to students answering false to the presented statements rather than answering true. Despite all of this, trust and compliance with the presence of a logo has been shown to increase in high-risk situations, but to not significantly affect the level of trust and compliance in a low-risk situation (Rafaeli, Sagy, & Derfler-Rozin, 2008).

When it comes to photographs, Bernstein et al. (2012) claimed pictures do produce a truth bias. If this is true, it would be interesting to relate to such things as Google news. The pictures on Google news are somewhat randomly generated alongside headlines and pictures do not always match. For example, there was a picture of Madonna next to a headline about Obama’s United Nations speech. It would be interesting to see if this affects the trust that people place in Google news or if people are more likely to believe the headline simply because there is a photograph. Also, maybe people would be more likely to read the news if there was a picture accompanying it for a sense of truthiness.

Truthiness effects dealing with political subject matter should take political affiliation into consideration. It is continuously found that people tend to trust those candidates that are in the party that the person affiliates with (King, 1997). However, Fisher, van Heerde, and Tucker (2010) found that people have a general dissatisfaction in what candidates and parties actually deliver. Fisher et al. (2010) believe politicians do not fulfill their past promises. Also, when a scandal occurs, trust can affect politicians, political institutions, and the political process as well (Bowler & Karp, 2004). When people have certain political affiliation, people are also more likely to believe chain e-mails and untrue rumors in them. Then the people, especially family and friends, who forward these e-mails are more likely to believe in them (Garrett, 2011). This is possibly because they trust their loved one(s) and look at them as the source. If someone is more politically involved, this influences that person’s attitudes and beliefs towards politics in general (Jin, An, & Simon 2009). These findings suggest that someone who is politically involved may put more stock into certain newsgroups and information the person is given and less into others because of the involvement. This idea affects their beliefs and attitudes. This certainly reflects an intuitive, personal way of making judgments about the truth of claims.

Therefore, when it comes to politics, we hypothesize that the truthiness effect will appear in our results. Research of imagery in politics has revealed that the images themselves can be indicative of the politician’s priorities and preferences (Sulkin & Swigger, 2008). However, research on the influence of imagery and judgments of truth in politics has not been a focal point. Although a general lack of trust in political leaders may seem like it pervades, an image may build trust in the statements being made. In our experiment, we have subjects make a judgment about the truth of a political statement paired with a photograph of a political figure, a news logo, a political figure’s name, any combination of the three (figure, logo or name), or just the statement by itself. If making judgments of truth not only depend upon an inherent believability in photographs and images, it will also build pseudo evidence from the images presented. If this were the case, then news logos and pictures of political figures should greatly affect how a person judges a statement (Bernstein et al, 2012). Since it has been shown in the past that logos only tend to build trust in stressful situations, this may indicate that people trust statements accompanied with a photograph more willingly. As far as pairing a name with a political statement goes, there are limited studies. It will be interesting to compare political statements associated with a logo, photograph, name, and/or a control group to see if there is an effect on truthiness. If people really use photos to build upon their personal hypotheses and beliefs, then the political affiliation should be closely linked to how they perceive a photo and whether or not they believe the statement. We expect that the logos, names, and pictures will increase the likelihood of the participants choosing “true” as an answer.

In this experiment, data were collected from 84 undergraduate students, with an average age of 22, in psychology courses from Missouri Western State University. Students participated for course credit or for extra bonus points. Only 78 participants’ data were used because six participants had an overall response of over 80% yes/no.

The 60 statements and pictures used for this experiment came from the Tampa Bay Time’s website, www.politifact.com. The official logos came from MSNBC, Fox News, and Onion News Network.

A 4x2x2 repeated measures design was used for this experiment. The first level of 4 included logos: MSNBC, FOX, Onion, or None. The second level of 2 included pictures: picture present or picture absent. The third level of 2 included names: name present or name absent.

Subjects were asked to read 60 statements on a computer screen and choose if they were true or false.  Each statement showed either a logo of a news network (either MSNBC, Fox, Onion, or none), a picture of a politician, both the logo and the picture, or no picture at all with the statement.  All 60 statements were randomized, allowing each statement to have a 50% chance of having a name and/or picture and a 25% chance of getting one of the four logos. Subjects did not have a certain time period to complete this task, but were allowed 30 minutes to finish the task. After the subjects finish responding to the 60 statements about their belief of the statement being true or false, the subjects were asked six questions in relation to their age, sex, what political party they relate to, if they plan to vote during the presidential election, what news they watch, and if they are aware of the Onion News.




We calculated the effects of a participants’ bias towards the presence of a particular stimuli. The stimuli were the presence of a name, picture image, or news logo in conjunction with a statement. The statements were then analyzed by the participant whether or not they believed the statements to be true or false by using a 3 way ANOVA.  All main effects and all interactions did not show any significance (see Table 1). It appears that the presence of a news logo, name, or picture had no effect on the participants’ bias.  Mean responses are shown in Figure 1.  Our results are based on a failure to reject the null, and we used SPSS Samplepower to examine the power of each of our effects.  Six out of the seven effects had a power approaching 1.0. We are now confident in this null result.

The 4x2x2 ANOVA established truthiness not to be as robust effect as believed by previous researchers exploring this phenomenon (Bernstein et al. 2012).  In fact, our conclusion is based on a failure to reject the null hypothesis, and the analysis showed a power of nearly one for six of the seven effects. If truthiness is indeed robust, this power indicates that it should have shown in our study.

An interesting discovery in our data was that students who affiliated with a certain political party did not necessarily mark statements as true that were paired with logos from networks that are also associated with that party. For instance, students who indicated that they affiliated with the republican party marked more statements as true that were paired with MSNBC’s logo than FOX’s logo. MSNBC is certainly seen as a more liberal network and FOX as a conservative network.  This could indicate that the students were not even paying attention to the stimuli like the logos.  Another indication of a possible disregard for the paired stimuli was that participants, who said that they knew what the Onion News Network was, marked many statements paired with the Onion’s logo as true.  If someone does, in fact, know what the Onion News Network is, then they should know that it is sarcastic, false, and unrealistic. Furthermore, this finding in our data may support research that people do not necessarily trust sources that they refer to the most frequently (Gilliland et al. 2009).  It could also show that they do not really follow news networks and understand their viewpoints. So, this discovery furthers the point that photos and visual stimuli do not necessarily inflate truthiness, and it may even show that these stimuli are ignored in some cases.

There is a potential that photographs, names, and logos may increase trustworthiness in some, specific situations. What we have found is that they do not increase belief in a statement when it comes to politics. It is possible that since we collected our data in the month preceding the 2012 presidential election, this may have affected how people responded to the stimuli presented. This is because there is a lot of pessimism and negative, possibly untrue, statements from both platforms.  Plus, people are being bombarded right now with all kinds of claims from different political groups and organizations. Our design could be repeated after the election is over, and the findings may be different. Still, regardless of these factors, truthiness is not robust, because it does not apply in every situation, as our study illustrates.

In conclusion, further research could be done with different pictures, logos, and topics to assess the phenomenon known as truthiness. It will be interesting to see if future research points out specific situations where truthiness may actually exist. Still, we have found that it is not applicable in every situation, therefore, is not robust.



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Bowler, S., & Karp, J. A. (2004). Politicians, scandals, and trust in government. Political
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Appendix A

Statements Used In the Experiment

1.     83% of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of Obamacare.

2.     The Obama administration even proposed banning farm kids from doing basic chores! 

3.     A report just came out that if we continue with President Obama's policies, we're looking at over 9 percent unemployment next year in the fourth quarter.

4.     ‘Obamacare’ puts the federal government between you and your doctor.

5.     Barack Obama began his presidency with an apology tour.

6.     Obamacare … means that for up to 20 million Americans, they will lose the insurance they currently have, the insurance that they like and they want to keep.

7.     Obamacare adds trillions to our deficits and to our national debt.

8.     President Obama was saying success is the result of government, not hard-working people, when he said, If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.

9.     Barack Obama robbed Medicare (of) $716 billion to pay for ... Obamacare.

10.  Stimulus money went to buy electric cars from Finland as a payback to Obama supporters.

11.  Stimulus dollars paid for windmills from China.

12.  Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.

13.  What president has the worst record on female labor force participation? Barack Obama.

14.  President Obama has waived the work requirement for welfare.

15.  Barack Obama has never even worked in business.

16.  Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich all say they would cut foreign aid to Israel — and every other country — to zero.

17.  Mitt Romney backed a bill that outlaws all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.

18.  Mitt Romney would deny gay people the right to adopt children.

19.  Mitt Romney’s carried interest income was a tax trick.

20.  Under Mitt Romney, Medicare could end as we know it, leaving Julia with nothing but a voucher to buy insurance, which means $6,350 extra per year for a similar plan.

21.  Under the Romney/Ryan budget, interest rates on federal student loans would be allowed to double.

22.  Tonight in Ohio, more people came out to vote for Barack Obama in an unopposed race than voted for (Mitt) Romney and (Rick) Santorum combined.

23.  Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years.

24.  When it comes to jobless workers, Mitt Romney says he likes to fire people.

25.  When Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were created, Republicans stood on the sidelines

26.  Gov. Romney himself, with 28 other Republican governors, supported policies that would have eliminated the time limits in the welfare reform law and allowed people to stay on welfare forever.

27.  What’s clear is (Romney) likes firing people.

28.  Mitt Romney asked for a waiver from federal welfare rules.

29.  U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison “has voted nine separate times to raise the national debt ceiling.”

30.  In 2008, candidate Barack Obama attacked John McCain for proposing cuts to Medicare.

31.  In his first TV interview as president, Obama said we should talk to Iran.

32.  Obama said (the individual mandate) wasn't a tax.

33.  Obama's secretary of energy, Dr. Steven Chu, has said publicly he wants us to pay European levels (for gasoline), and that would be $9 or $10 a gallon.

34.  President Obama's proposal calls for serious cuts in our own long-term carbon emissions, but China and India will still be allowed to increase their emissions.

35.  Polls show Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to Obamacare, especially the individual mandate.

36.  Barack Obama has played nearly 100 rounds of golf as president

37.  Obama has admitted a cap and trade plan would cause electricity bills to skyrocket.

38.  Since World War II, only Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton have had worse ratings after seven months than President Obama.

39.  The (federal) debt is growing by more than $4 billion a day.

40.  The day President Obama took office, gasoline was $1.79 a gallon.

41.  Then-Sen. Barack Obama refused to raise the debt ceiling because he said President Bush had failed in leadership.

42.  Washington cannot hide from the fact that Congress hiked the national debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion.

43.  We're spending $1 trillion a year on our foreign policy.

44.  His new running mate, Congressman Ryan, put forward a plan that would let Governor Romney pay less than 1 percent in taxes each year.  Barack Obama

45.  Mitt Romney says class sizes don’t matter.

46.  Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to turn Medicare into a voucher system.  Barack Obama

47.  Mitt Romney wants to end tax credits for wind producers. Barack Obama

48.  Romney called Russia our No. 1 enemy. Barack Obama

49.  As Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney condemned coal-fired plants, saying they kill people.  Barack Obama

50.  Under the Romney-Ryan budget ... the American Opportunity Tax Credit for college tuition would be eliminated. Barack Obama

51.  U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan attacked the president for the same amount of Medicare savings that (Ryan) had in his own budget.

52.  Republicans created a trillion dollar prescription drug entitlement program without paying for it. Bobby Scott

53.  Republicans want to cut education by 25 percent.

54.  When President Bush took office in 2001, he inherited a $236 billion budget surplus, with a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. When he ended his term, he left a $1.3 trillion deficit and a projected 10-year shortfall of $8 trillion.  David Axelrod

55.  In the last six months of the Bush administration, the U.S. lost 3.5 million jobs, including 760,000 jobs during January 2009 alone.  Joe Biden


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