Beauty is not Truth

This is a guest blogpost by James Richardson, Business Analytics Strategist, Qlik

When we design a Qlik app, does its aesthetic quality influence how much credence people give to the analysis it communicates?

Obviously, the more polished looking a visualisation, app or data story is, the better.

However, there’s a danger when it comes to critical thinking – which is key in making the optimal decision, the main reason organisations say they invest in BI software.

The problem is that people are more likely to favour and believe something if it’s attractive to them.

Of course, this could be another human. There’s plenty of evidence that better looking interview candidates get more job offers. An interesting academic paper on this tendency from Hofstra University is ‘Physical Attractiveness Bias in Hiring: What Is Beautiful Is Good‘. It seems there’s no escaping our biology.

This tendency to favour the appealing when making choices and decisions applies to objects as much as people. This propensity even has a name – the Keats heuristic.

Why Keats?  In his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” John Keats (1795-1821) concluded with:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –that is all.

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Sadly, Keats’ romantic aphorism isn’t true, but people often behave as though it is. It seems we can’t help it.

This heuristic has some interesting outcomes. When it comes to the spoken word, people are more likely to value or place credence in a statement that rhymes that one that doesn’t. According to a fascinating  article, ‘The Keats heuristic: Rhyme as reason in aphorism interpretation‘ by Matthew S. McGlone, people feel that sayings like ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ are more true than the equivalent ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor elsewhere’.

It’s well known that people find it easier to recall rhyming language than blank verse or prose. However, the finding that they value the same message communicated in rhyme more highly than when in non-rhyming form is Keats’ heuristic in action: rhyme is pleasing, even beautiful, so people believe it more. Why? A reason could be because humans are drawn to symmetry, which is one of the classical archetypes of beauty.

This is obviously the case when it comes to visual forms. A symmetrical image or object (like Keats’ urn) is pleasing, memorable and can again appear more credible. Take the familiar image of sense receptors on the human tongue.

It’s memorable without doubt.  This may help to explain its longevity despite that what it represents has no basis in fact – and never did. When it was drawn in 1901 it was already out of line with scientific understanding.  Taste receptors are in fact distributed all over the tongue. The telling thing is that people saw this and believed it even though they could test it for themselves simply by putting something sweet or salty on the parts of the tongue that the visualization says cannot detect these tastes. People believe things that look convincing.

So what am I saying? Don’t make symmetrical or beautiful visualizations and apps?  No, of course not!  A good looking app can help get people’s attention and draw them in. Many people assume that because we introduced an attractive new UX and new visualization features in Qlik Sense we are emphasising the role of aesthetics in decision making. But in fact beyond that initial attraction QIX-powered apps help people to overcome their tendency to be misled by aesthetic distraction through the use of exploration. The very fact that people can alter the view and explore different perspectives helps them stop being starry eyed. Qlik’s search capabilities (and particularly the Qlik Sense global selector) may not be beautiful but (we think) their power helps people to avoid falling prey to the Keats’ heuristic.

So remember:

“Pretty pictures can mislead, but pretty and powerful does the deed”

Hmm – it’s OK I suppose.  Can you come up with a better, more beautiful rhyme than I did?