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Why falsehoods are easy to believe

U. MICHIGAN (US) — Misinformation is easy to accept if it fits in with a prior belief, researchers say, even when the information is known to be false.

Childhood vaccines do not cause autism. President Obama was born in the United States. Global warming is confirmed by science. And yet, many people believe claims to the contrary.

In a study appearing in the current issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers examined factors that cause people to resist correcting misinformation that can originate from rumor, fiction, or government and politicians.

“Misinformation stays in memory and continues to influence our thinking, even if we correctly recall that it is mistaken,” says Colleen Seifert, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “Managing misinformation requires extra cognitive effort from the individual.

“If the topic is not very important to you, or you have other things on your mind, you are more likely to make use of misinformation. Most importantly, if the information fits with your prior beliefs, and makes a coherent story, you are more likely to use it even though you are aware that it’s incorrect.”

Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Western Australia and the study’s lead author, adds “this persistence of misinformation has fairly alarming implications in a democracy because people may base decisions on information that, at some level, they know to be false.

“At an individual level, misinformation about health issues—for example, unwarranted fears regarding vaccinations or unwarranted trust in alternative medicine—can do a lot of damage.

“At a societal level, persistent misinformation about political issues (Obama’s health care reform) can create considerable harm. On a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action.”

Ideology and personal world views can be major obstacles for changing false beliefs. Despite attempts to retract misinformation, the researchers say this effort can backfire and even amplify the erroneous belief. In fact, attempts to correct misinformation often spread the false beliefs even further. That’s because corrections may repeat the false information and then explain why it is wrong.

As time passes, people forget the details. When they then hear the misinformation again, it feels all the more familiar and is even more likely to be accepted, says Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology and marketing and a research professor at the Institute for Social Research.

“To be effective, corrections need to tell people what’s true without repeating all the stuff that’s wrong. The more often people hear a false message, the more likely they are to believe it.”

The researchers offer some strategies for setting the record straight:

  • Provide people with a narrative that replaces the gap left by false information.
  • Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than the myths.
  • Make sure that the information you want people to take away is simple and brief.
  • Consider your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold.
  • Strengthen your message through repetition.

Researchers from the University of Queensland co-wrote the study.

Source: University of Michigan

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3 Comments

  1. Cris

    Misinformation is the perfect means of brainwashing the stupid hordes of people that inhabit the planet.

  2. jeh

    That confirms what I’ve always believed!
    Unfortunately, the suggestions for overcoming misinformation or false beliefs ignores the vested interest of many to get people to continue believing whatever it is – consider lobbying for example, or religion. One cannot easily convince people that Obama was born in the US when birthers have Fox News to broadcast their opinions. Or that global warming is real when billions is being spent on misinformation by energy companies. Or that 47% of the people of America are mooches on welfare when politicians lie consistently. Yes, that’s the secret – lie consistently!

  3. richard

    I do not recall who made this statement but it seems to fit well on this topic:

    If 100,000 people repeat something that is stupid, it is still stupid.

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