Misinformation: Why It Sticks and How to Fix It


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

Why does that kind of misinformation stick? A new report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explores this phenomenon. Psychological scientist Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia and colleagues highlight the cognitive factors that make certain pieces of misinformation so “sticky” and identify some techniques that may be effective in debunking or counteracting erroneous beliefs.

The main reason that misinformation is sticky, according to the researchers, is that rejecting information actually requires cognitive effort. Weighing the plausibility and the source of a message is cognitively more difficult than simply accepting that the message is true – it requires additional motivational and cognitive resources. If the topic isn’t very important to you or you have other things on your mind, misinformation is more likely to take hold.

And when we do take the time to thoughtfully evaluate incoming information, there are only a few features that we are likely to pay attention to: Does the information fit with other things I believe in? Does it make a coherent story with what I already know? Does it come from a credible source? Do others believe it?

Misinformation is especially sticky when it conforms to our preexisting political, religious, or social point of view. Because of this, ideology and personal worldviews can be especially difficult obstacles to overcome.

Even worse, efforts to retract misinformation often backfire, paradoxically amplifying the effect of the erroneous belief.

“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,” says Lewandowsky.

“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 (e.g., Obama’s health care reform) can create considerable harm. On a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action.”

Though misinformation may be difficult to correct, all is not lost. According to Lewandowsky, “psychological science has the potential to counteract all those harms by educating people and communicators about the power of misinformation and how to meet it.”

In their report, Lewandowsky and colleagues 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

Research has shown that attempts at “debiasing” can be effective in the real world when based on these evidence-based strategies.

The report, “Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing,” is published in the September issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest and is written by Stephan Lewandowsky and Ullrich Ecker of the University of Western Australia, Colleen Seifert and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, and John Cook of the University of Queensland and the University of Western Australia.

The report also features a commentary written by Edward Maibach of George Mason University.

The full report and the accompanying commentary are available free online.

 

See also: http://intellectualvirtues.org


4 Responses to Misinformation: Why It Sticks and How to Fix It

  1. Eric Gisin September 21, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    Is this a science blog? One only has to google Lewandowsky to see his recent paper on climate skeptics is a complete fraud.

  2. Brian September 20, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    Your explanation regarding null-hypotheses is solid, but your insistence on using it to deny climate change theory ironically illustrates the point of the article. Using an argument over human involvement in climate change to determine the validity of climate change itself is false logic. For example, hurricanes are thusfar unlikely to be caused by human involvement, but we still prepare for them, work to mitigate their effects, and rebuild in the aftermath. We take all the steps we can to lessen the damage the hurricane will cause. Since we humans can mostly only effect what we are involved in, certainly our abilities will be limited, but we can still do many things. With this in mind, the logical focus of our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change would start with human factors that we believe likely affect the planet’s climate.

    Beyond this, I am curious which pieces of logic in the article you find “silly.” Especially since it is an informational article and not a persuasive proof.

  3. Joe476 September 20, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    Barack Obama was born in the United States. Global warming is confirmed by science.
    Evolution is confirmed by science. Injecting newborns and infants with bolus doses of organic mercury has been proven to be safe.

  4. Cole September 20, 2012 at 2:24 am #

    Quite the logical leap you made there considering the facts.
    The reality is science doesn’t deal in absolute proofs. Instead it realies on the falsification of alternative hypotheis until the most likely one emerges. This hypothesis then moves on to become a theory.
    This is basic fact, that you learn in gradeschool science, it’s the scientific method, it is simple hypothesis testing.

    People like to forget this has never overcome the null-hypothesis (a basic hypothesis test), that the warming is a natural fluctuation. Why does this matter? Let me explain.

    A null-hypothesis is a default position. To overcome the null-hypothesis you have to show a certain statistical significance (or probability) that the evidence fits your hypothesis better than the default position. We’re not talking about absolute proof, just probability.

    Let’s use gravity as an example. The evidence that best fits the theory (by a high probability) is that gravity is generated by mass. If you were to say that gravity used to be generated by mass but now it’s mostly people, you had better be able to show a high probability that the evidence fits your hypothesis better than the current default position. If you didn’t you would be scoffed at. However, human caused climate change has never done this! The evidence fits the null-hypothesis like a glove. Why? Climate change is the norm, not the exception! It always has and always will change. There is not one paper that falsifies the null-hypothesis!

    By not overcoming the null-hypothesis, the human caused climate change hypothesis does not even qualify as a theory. These people who play it as a fact, are in fact in denial of the scientific method!

    The rest of the logic in this article is (sorry to say it), silly.

    You don’t believe everything your told, and when you check you find you are correct (given actual government numbers), so you must be one of those birther people!

    What!??
    You don’t think your muffler bearings need to be changed! You don’t trust the “experts” that say your halogen needs to be refilled in your headlights!
    Wow… Aren’t you stupid.

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