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Establishing Credibility: The Truth About “Truthiness”

If you have ever watched The Colbert Report, the on-air persona constructed by Stephen Colbert often talks about “Truthiness”, a word created by the entertainer to refer to a phenomenon of “if something sounds true, it feels true and so therefore must be true.”

The term was coined to parody how misinformation often becomes “common knowledge” or “gospel truth”—particularly in politics. But as marketers, we are the promoters and guardians of credibility for ourselves, our companies, our products and our clients. We cannot be effective if we cannot establish credibility.

So, what’s the truth about truthiness?

In the world of consumer psychology, truthiness is known as “processing fluency”. In other words, the simpler something is to understand, so long as that thing isn’t an obvious contradiction to firmly held beliefs or experiences by that person, the more likely that person is to accept that thing as true.

Humans, as a species, are lazy. Let me re-phrase that. We conserve our mental and physical resources as much as possible. So, when looking for information, we typically look until we find something that satisfies our basic needs and then call it a day—often without fact checking, seeking out alternative viewpoints or sources or otherwise “kicking the tires.” Think of our political views. If you are a liberal, do you often read conservative columnists to get all points of view? If you are a conservative, do you consult liberals?

If you do, then mazel tov, but you are very much in the minority.

What reinforces “truthiness”?

Congruence with previously held attitudes.

In politics, if someone from your party of choice says something, you probably take it as fact. In consumer goods, brand attitudes are the dominate force. If you think Sony makes the best consumer electronics, when you see a new product from them, you are highly inclined to believe that product is the best—even without looking at another brand or product review from a third party.

What conflicts with “truthiness”?

Motivation and contradiction.

If people are highly motivated, they will seek multiple sources of information. Often, the moderator of motivation in consumer goods is risk. And the two greatest sources of perceived risk in consumers are experience and price. The less people know about a product or brand, the less secure they feel.

Perceived risk also correlates with cost. If you love BMWs and have always wanted a BMW, you are probably still going to look at Consumer Reports before plunking down $70,000. But if you love Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, you are probably not going to do exhaustive research before plunking down three or four bucks for a pint.

Additionally, if a person is confronted with information that runs counter to their expectations and beliefs, they will be slow to accept it as fact—no matter how simple the information is.

What does all this mean for marketers?

In my next article, I will get into applying what we know about Truthiness/Processing Fluency to achieve the highest impact with your customers and prospects.

John Dinsmore is a marketing consultant based out of Cincinnati, OH where he is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Consumer Behavior. He can be reached at dinsmojb [at] mail [dot] uc [dot] edu or

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