True or false? How uncertainty about the accuracy of information affects learning

A young man with a puzzled expression holding a laptop computer
The challenges that come with learning from the internet helped to inspire the team's research on how guessing whether information is true or not might affect learning.

People turn to search results for all types of answers these days. Yet, with the wide breadth of sometimes unreliable information across the Internet, it can be difficult to decipher fact from fiction. 

That’s one of the reasons why UC Santa Cruz postdoctoral scholar Karen Arcos set out to determine how the process of guessing whether information is true or not might affect learning. 

Arcos and her two co-authors, Assistant Professor of Psychology Hannah Hausman and Department Chair of Psychology Benjamin Storm, published their findings recently with the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology in an article titled “Are you sure?: Examining the Potential Benefits of Truth-Checking as a Learning Activity.”

The paper follows a series of three experiments, in which the authors provided participants with 50 historical statements, ranging from U.S. history to geography to wartime facts to the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Some participants were shown exclusively true statements—and were told that they were true—and other participants were offered a mix of true and false statements. 

All participants were later tested to see how well they remembered the true statements presented during the experiment and to see how well they could differentiate false and true statements. 

The participants who were presented with some false information during the experiment were either told each statement’s accuracy in advance or were asked to guess it prior to receiving feedback that revealed which statements were true and which were false, a tactic that the team calls “truth-checking.” 

Truth-checking, Arcos explained, involves an individual guessing or predicting if a statement is true without knowing for sure if it is or not. The research team thought that truth-checking might increase a participant’s attention to a statement they had yet to learn, as well as their curiosity for the truth, and thus help them to remember the statement.

“The idea behind the work is that, perhaps, by being able to think through the information more carefully, you’ll be able to remember it, as opposed to just reading information and assuming that it’s true from the get-go,” said Arcos, who finished her postdoctoral fellowship in early October.

Professor Storm, who oversaw Arcos’s experiments as part of the UCSC Memory Laboratory, has focused the majority of his career on human memory, namely the causes and consequences of forgetting. With this study, Arcos built upon Storm’s previous work, making the learning process a bit more challenging, in order to engage in cognitive processes that allow for participants to better remember facts.

Some prior research in the field has shown that activities that create pauses to reflect on learning material—or that space out the timing of information gathering—can help learners to retain information more than the standard study tactic of simply re-reading information. But on the other hand, research on misinformation has shown how beliefs built on false information can become deeply entrenched, even after the falsities are revealed. Arcos and her co-authors wanted to explore how truth-checking might interact with both of these dynamics.

The UCSC team’s findings showed that, under some conditions, the "truth checking" process seemed to enhance learning of true information, but it was not a time-efficient means of learning and also led to a greater likelihood of thinking false information was true. These findings suggest that the costs of truth-checking in learning may outweigh any benefits. The team was surprised there wasn’t a larger positive impact on learning from the addition of truth-checking.

“We thought this would really help students remember the information—when you have to make a decision of whether something’s true or not, it forces you to really judge the material,” Storm said. “But we didn’t find much of a benefit there.”

Arcos believes there’s potential for future research looking more into prior knowledge exposure and truth-checking to offer new insights on how the process works and how it might affect learning in our age of increasing uncertainty. 

“Why might people be biased to just guess information as true,” she asked. “How can we get them to think more carefully about the statements that they’re reading? Science is not, ‘it’s definitely this, or it’s definitely that,’; it’s messier than that.”