Experimentally-induced “aha moments” can make subjective claims appear more valid, according to new research published in Scientific Reports. The study provides evidence that people who experience sudden insights are more likely to see “temporally coincident but unrelated beliefs” as truthful.
“I was inspired by the observation that insight experiences tend to happen at the same time as people change their beliefs or worldviews. For example, I would have lively conversations with colleagues and it was only really when they managed to trigger an ‘Aha!’ moment that I was willing to consider their perspective (or perhaps even adopt it),” explained cognitive neuroscientist Ruben Laukkonen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
“Insights seemed to signal an important transformation within. But powerful feelings of insight were also sometimes misleading, making seemingly bad ideas feel very true. On a more dramatic scale, I also observed that individuals suffering from schizophrenia or delusions too report strong experiences of insight. I began to consider the possibility that feelings of insight themselves can drive changes in our beliefs (at some level), and that under certain circumstances or states of mind, the feeling of insight can mislead us entirely. The first thing to do then, was to see whether we could artificially use feelings of insight to change people’s beliefs in the laboratory, which is what we found in these experiments.”
The researchers first generated 15 statements that were not objectively demonstrable as true or false. Each statement was constructed so that its final word was critical to its meaning. Then, 2,489 individuals were randomly assigned to either an Anagram or No Anagram condition — the latter of which was used as a control group.
Participants in the no anagram condition read statements such as “We gain the deepest knowledge by simply being in nature” and then rated how true or false they were. Those in the anagram condition, in contrast, were presented with the statement “We gain the deepest knowledge by simply being in [blank]” and shown an anagram of the last word (in this case, “artenu.”) They were given 15 seconds to unscramble the word. When the answer had been submitted or time ran out, participants were shown the full statement and then rated how true or false it was. Participants then reported whether they had experienced an “Aha moment” while unscramble the anagram before moving on to the next statement.
Laukkonen and his colleagues found that participants in the anagram condition rated the statements as truer compared to those in the control condition. Importantly, successfully solving the anagram led to higher truth ratings and truth ratings were the highest among those who correctly solved anagrams and experienced aha moments.
“Next time you experience an insight, consider whether the feeling is warranted,” Laukkonen told PsyPost. “Should you trust the idea just because it felt like an insight, or is there more work to be done? The punchline is not that insights shouldn’t be trusted (they should be, on average), but that they are also fallible, and that the feeling of insight is perhaps affecting our decisions in subtle ways that we did not previously appreciate. Metaphorically, insight is like an inner signal of truth that ‘lights up’ ideas or beliefs to make them seem more trustworthy, but this ‘light’ is only an inference, not a fact.”
Laukkonen and his colleagues also found evidence that aha moments needed to be temporally contiguous to increase the perceived truthfulness of the statements.
In a second experiment, with 676 participants, the researchers followed a similar methodology but included a 10-second delay between solving each anagram and being shown the full statement for some participants. They found that participants who read the full statement immediately after solving each anagram tended to have higher truth ratings compared to participants who were forced to wait 10 seconds. Furthermore, experiencing aha moments when solving anagrams did not result in higher truth ratings for participants who were forced to wait 10 seconds.
Laukkonen and his colleagues noted that the new findings could have some practical implications, such as explaining belief in the so-called QAnon conspiracy theory.
“If irrelevant aha moments can influence worldview statements, how much more impactful might a relevant one be?” the researchers wrote in their study. “A potentially disastrous example of this mechanism in action might be seen in the QAnon phenomenon. Here an unknown individual(s) set up vague clues for the public to identify patterns across the media, political and presidential proceedings, and other current events, with the goal of confirming a grand conspiracy in which the president of the United States was acting behind the scenes to stop a pedophilic cannibalistic cabal. The level of support for the movement is hard to measure, but appears remarkably high given the bizarre nature of the claims.”
But Laukkonen cautioned that the new study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“As is nearly always the case, we need to be careful about generalizing laboratory results to everyday life,” he explained. “We used toy problems to demonstrate that this is something that can happen. We do not yet know to what extent it actually happens out there in the world. Though, many anecdotes suggest that feelings of insight are powerful and persuasive, and can inspire actions, changes, scientific and creative breakthroughs, and even delusions.”
“The bigger picture here is an attempt to answer the question: Why do we have feelings of insight at all?” Laukkonen said. “Why did we evolve to have them? The answer that is beginning to emerge is that they play an important role in helping us select ideas quickly and efficiently. If we had to run a cost benefit analysis on every idea we had, we’d never get through a conversation, or get to safety in time.”
The study, “Irrelevant insights make worldviews ring true“, was authored by Ruben E. Laukkonen, Benjamin T. Kaveladze, John Protzko, Jason M. Tangen, William von Hippel, and Jonathan W. Schooler.