Aha! moments give a “ring of truth” to completely unrelated statements

By Matthew Warren

Word puzzles are all the rage right now. But if you’ve already done today’s Wordle, here are some anagrams to keep you going until tomorrow:

Reality is only a matter of…..   tvesrecipep

Free will is a powerful….. oinliusl

If you managed to solve the anagrams at the end of these statements, you may have experienced a “Eureka” or “Aha!” moment, in which the solution suddenly seemed to appear, perhaps accompanied by a sense of happiness or relief. And if you did, according to a new study in Scientific Reports, you’d be more likely to believe that the statement itself is true.

We’ve all experienced Aha! moments in our daily lives. They often seem to come out of nowhere after we’ve been stumped by a problem for a while, perhaps while we’re doing something else like having a shower. And generally, an Aha! moment is more likely to occur if we’ve arrived at the correct solution to a problem than if we’ve reached an incorrect one.

In fact, because they are normally associated with finding the right solution, when we experience Aha! moments we get a gut feeling that what we’ve come up with is correct or true. But a 2019 study by Ruben Laukkonen at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and colleagues found that this intuitive response has a dark side: experiencing Aha! moments while reading false statements can make these statements seem true.

In their new paper, the same group explored whether Aha! moments can also influence how much people endorse particular worldviews. They asked participants to read 15 statements, like those above. For half of the participants, the final word of each statement was scrambled and they had to try and solve it within 15 seconds. The other half just read the statement in full, with no anagram (e.g. “Free will is a powerful illusion”, if you are still scratching your head about that one).

All participants then rated how true they thought the statement was on a 12-point scale. Those in the anagram condition also indicated whether or not they had experienced an Aha! moment while unscrambling the word.

Overall, participants in the anagram condition rated the statements as more true than those who saw the statements with no anagram. Furthermore, in trials where they successfully solved an anagram, they rated the statement as more true than on trials where they weren’t successful.

But here’s the crucial finding: participants in the anagram condition also rated the statement as more true if they had experienced an Aha! moment than if they had not, and this effect held even when the researchers looked only at trials where the participants had successfully solved the anagram. In other words, Aha! moments seemed to give a “ring of truth” to these worldview statements, above and beyond any effect that might have been caused by successfully solving the anagram. A replication study found exactly the same result.

In a second study, the team showed that the timing of the Aha! moment mattered. When participants completed an anagram in isolation (e.g. “oinliusl”), and then saw the full statement 10 seconds later, their truth ratings were not affected by whether or not they had experienced an Aha! moment. That is, Aha! moments only made worldview statements seem more true when they occurred at the same time as reading the statement.  

The research suggests that Aha! moments can influence fairly fundamental beliefs about the way the world works. “Because aha experiences tend to be a marker of good ideas, it makes sense that humans learn to draw on this feeling as a source of information about our beliefs,” the authors conclude. Unfortunately, this mental short-cut doesn’t always work as intended.

Of course, completing an anagram at the end of a statement is a fairly artificial scenario. But the authors do hint at how a similar process might play out in the real world, pointing to the example of conspiracy theories and specifically QAnon. Followers who have been told that there is a cabal of satanic pedophiles in the upper echelons of government might experience an Aha! moment upon discovering a “secret code” in leaked emails that supposedly supports this theory, making those outlandish claims seem more true. More work is clearly needed to understand how the “dark side” of Aha! moments can influence our real-life beliefs and behaviour — and what can be done to prevent any harmful effects.

– Irrelevant insights make worldviews ring true

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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