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.
Research has shown that attempts at "debiasing" can be effective in the real world when based on these evidence-based strategies.
Association for Psychological Science: http://www.psychologicalscience.org
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Evidence was weak that marijuana helps anxiety and sleep disorders
Ageing doesn’t mean a steady descent into misery – evidence suggests that happiness is likely to increase as we head towards old age, but is it that simple?
The Ebola epidemic in Guinea that began early last year has set back the country's fight against malaria, say experts.
New diagnostics can find the DNA that drives a tumor, but evidence that they help patients is missing.
Scientists agree that children raised by same-sex couples are no worse off than children raised by parents of the opposite sex, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Oregon professor.
Children as young as 3 years old will step in to right the wrong if they see someone being mistreated, a study finds. But they aren't as keen as 5-year-olds to dole out punishment.
Millions suffer from SAD in summer as well as winter, and evidence hints that birth season plays a role in who develops the disorder
International panel says climate change is already affecting people's health, but there are steps we can take
A new federal study has answers
When Middle East respiratory syndrome erupted in South Korea, people started wearing masks everywhere, even at weddings. So how good are these masks at stopping MERS or even the flu?