The Truth: Tell It to Me Straight

“Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” – Leo Tolstoy

What makes the difference between believing someone versus not believing someone?  Most of us have an underlying sense of whether or not to believe what someone is saying, but what is it that really makes the difference?

Facts About Language & Truth

A recent PsyBlog article, “Why Concrete Language Communicates Truth,” examines the reasons why concrete language is most believable.  The author noted some pertinent facts about language and truth:

  • Stories that are more vivid are perceived as more truthful
  • People believe that more details in a story indicates greater truth
  • We tend to believe that more facts make unlikely events seem more likely

These facts seem to indicate that colorful stories full of details and facts lend to our credibility.  What is one to do when “the truth” is simple, straightforward, and without excessive details?  Making up vivid details and facts to try to make one’s story appear more believable obviously goes against being a credible and trustworthy person. When the truth lacks vivid details, keep it simple and in concrete terms.

Concrete Language vs. Abstract Language

A recent study by Hansen and Wanke (2010) indicated that “statements of the very same content were judged as more probably true when they were written in concrete language than when they were written in abstract language.”

Take a look at these two sentences:

  • “Hamburg is the European record holder concerning the number of bridges.”
  • “In Hamburg, one can count the highest number of bridges in Europe.”

Which sentence did you find more believable?  In Hansen and Wanke’s study, “Truth From Language and Truth From Fit,” participants rated the second sentence as more believable.  While there isn’t any more detail in the second sentence or any significantly different meaning, it is rated as more believable because “it doesn’t beat around the bush, it conjures a simple, unambiguous and compelling image: you counting bridges.”

Why Concrete Language Indicates Truth

Hansen and Wanke give three reasons why concrete language indicates truth:

  1. Since our minds process concrete statements quickly, we automatically associate quick and easy with true.
  2. It is easier to create mental pictures of concrete statements.  Easier to recall = seems more true.
  3. When something can be easily pictured, it just seems more likely.  Easily pictured = more believable.

What are the implications of this study on concrete language and truth for your life?  Fortunately, most of us don’t go through the day coming up with ways to manipulate and distort what we are saying in order to be perceived as trustworthy or believable.  Perhaps an underlying reason why simple concrete language is perceived as more truthful is because when we are telling the truth, we’re usually not over-thinking it – we just tell it as it is.

We all have different styles of communication, and some of us have a natural tendency to go into more detail when telling stories/recounting events than others.  As with everything, context is key.  When you are listening to someone’s story, be sure to take into account what you already know about this person, how they typically communicate, as well as any relevant facts.  If someone is feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or rushed, they will relay information or tell a story quite differently than when they are relaxed and calm.

When in doubt, just remember: keep it simple.

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Hansen, J., & Wanke, M. (2011). Truth from language and truth from fit: the impact of linguistic concreteness and level of construal on subjective truth. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, (36), 1576-1588.

Featured image: Swirling a Mystery by qthomasbower / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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