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Believing In Tree Octopi, or How Gullible Are Kids (And You)?

I wasn’t an especially gullible kid. I didn’t trust too much I read or heard unless it seemed plausible to me. But, then again, I didn’t have the Internet at my disposal.

Maybe that’s why a study by the University of Connecticut found that seventh graders mostly believe what they see on the Internet, even if it’s obviously a joke. Or maybe the methodology set it up to lead them to believe that what they saw was true. OR MAYBE THIS STUDY ISN’T TRUE, EITHER! DID YOU THINK ABOUT THAT? HAH!

Either way, this is what the study purports to show, according to a report on the site Life’s Little Mysteries: They took 53 of the best readers from low-income schools districts’ seventh grade classes and told them they would be helping someone else by evaluating whether a page on the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was true. The result: 87.5% thought the page to be “reliable,” and over half called it “very reliable.” And all of the kids who said it was unreliable came from one school where they’d been told to be suspicious of online information, and were given the Tree Octopus story as an example. So every kid who hadn’t been already told the page was a joke thought it was real.

And that raises the question of whether this is just a problem for seventh graders. After all, well… Wikipedia. How many times do you hear people citing what they read on Wikipedia as fact when you KNOW it isn’t accurate? How many pages do you see where you know the facts aren’t right, yet you suspect others aren’t aware of the inaccuracies? Do you trust what you read on the Internet? Do you trust what you read anywhere at all? Do you trust THIS VERY WEBSITE? HAH? DO YOU???

I think they’re probably going to need to do more studies on this. But you might want to discuss in the comments below whether you find what you see on the Internet generally reliable and true, generally bogus, or something in between.

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  1. Mary says:

    My librarian tricked me into believing there was a tree octopus when i was in 1st grade. i found out there wasn’t in 4th grade. Ha ha. =)

  2. Rich James says:

    So here are the problems with the article cited above:
    1.No citations whatsoever to the actual study.
    2.Dr.Leu does seem to exist and do research involving education, but I couldn’t locate any studies published under his name. While i do find him quoted in other articles about the same topic, none of the ones i looked at had links to original text from a peer reviewed study or research journal.
    3.The in text links that appear to lead to relevant data either lead to the bogus website or another Life’s Little Mysteries article.
    4.The other articles I sampled from Life’s little Mysteries were guilty of these same offenses.
    5.the study in question(if it actually happened) only chose children from low income schools. A proper study would have chosen a larger sample size for its subjects.

    Rant over, just check sources for everything(this includes print media)!

    p.s. I am a 22 year old college drop out get some sense people! If i can think critically so can you.

  3. Chris Barrus says:

    Let’s not forget the dangers posed by dihydrogen monoxide (Snopes link)

  4. Ellie says:


    You know, just cause it’s an awesome word.

  5. twohatcat says:

    Everyone’s talking about kids. What about adults who are taken in by these things?

  6. Jim says:

    Reminds me a bit of when I was the junior maintenance helper in a power plant. The maintenance man thought it would be funny to send me on a wild goose chase. I was supposed to go to the tool crib for a ten pound can of compression. I spent the better part of two hours going to the crib then from department ot department before returning to the power plant. BTW there is no such thing as a can of compression. I knew this, but who was I to ruin his fun?

  7. GirlOverboard says:

    Fun fact! The term “octopi” is actually technically incorrect, though now accepted by many as the plural for “octopus.” It is an incorrect Latinization of a word that is not Latin (it is Greek). Both “octopuses” and “octopodes” are correct, though “octopodes,” despite being my favorite of the plurals, is less common.

  8. Sandra says:

    You seem to be missing the important part of this story.. how can we help the majestic Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus?

  9. Matthew says:

    Twelve/Thirteen-year-olds? Gullible? Never!

    Seriously, though. All this study really “proved” is that kids need to learn what to look for; they don’t somehow magically know how to tell a reliable website from a fake one. The same effect would happen if you handed the same kids a book that contained clearly fake information and asked them if the information was true.

    If you do teach them to look for the earmarks of a reliable source, then kids are actually pretty good finding the fakes (note how all of the kids that were taught what to look for knew that the site was unreliable).

    Incidentally, librarians (and I suspect teachers) have been using the tree octopus site as a teaching tool for years. It’s actually really useful for pointing out what to look for when evaluating a website.

  10. justin says:

    It reminds me of a petition my psychology teacher had us take around school in hopes of banning companies from dumping di-hydrogen mon-oxide into our streams.