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Science has achieved high standing in society, and as a result can wield a great amount of influence when conveying information. Previous research has investigated the impact of the use of scientific items such as brain-scan images, which are incomprehensible to most audiences. In the absence of clear understanding, an individual might accept the claims associated with the scan more readily, as a result of inferred expertise. In this new study we explored how easily-understandable scientific items (graphs, simple statistics, and formulas) could be used to make communication more persuasive. We hypothesized that individuals who read claims about a medication accompanied by a graph would rate the medication as more effective than individuals who read the same information without the accompanying graph.For the first study we recruited 61 individuals to complete an online questionnaire in which they read a statement about a new medication for the common cold. Half of the participants were shown a statement along with a graph, and half received only the statement. The graph contained no additional information from what was stated in the written information, and both sources of information demonstrated that the new medication resulted in a reduction of common cold occurrences. Participants were then asked to respond to the questions: “How effective is the medication” using a 9-point Likert scale, and “Does the medication really reduce illness?” using a yes or no response.
We found that the individuals shown the graph rated the medication as being more effective (6.83) than those who were only provided with the written information (6.12). Moreover, 96.55% of the treatment group believed that the medication would reduce illness, compared with 67.74% of the control group.
For the second study we recruited 56 university students to participate in a questionnaire similar to that provided in the first study. The main difference in this study is that the control group viewed a written repetition of the information contained in the graph. Participants were asked to rate their level of agreement with the following statements: “I believe the new drug is effective”, and “I believe in science” using a 9-point Likert scale. We found that individuals who viewed the graph rated the medication as being significantly more effective (5.75) than those in the control group (4.66). We also found that the higher an individual’s belief in science the higher they rated a medication with an accompanying graph.
The third and final study in this series sought to test whether the results seen in studies 1 and 2 were the result of the visual nature of the graphs. In order to determine this, we recruited 57 individuals from a shopping mall to complete a questionnaire on a new medication. Half the group received a statement containing a chemical formula, and the other half only received the statement. Participants were then asked to estimate the number of hours the medication would work. Individuals shown the chemical formula estimated that the medication would work for an additional 2.14 hours than individuals who only read the statement (5.91 vs. 3.77 hours).
Together, these studies have implications for the use of scientific elements in regard to persuasion. The findings bring to light the ease with which the persuasion of a claim can be enhanced, as well as the importance of being cognizant of potential abuse in the communication of scientific claims.
Tal, Aner, and Brian Wansink (2014). Blinded with science: Trivial graphs and formulas increase ad persuasiveness and belief in product efficacy. Public Understanding of Science. doi: 10.1177/0963662514549688.