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.
The World Health Organization says an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa has been linked to the deaths of more than 120 people. As of Monday, the organization recorded a total of 200 suspected or confirmed cases of Ebola, which is normally found in central or eastern Africa, in…
To see if low blood sugar sours even good relationships, scientists used an unusual tool: voodoo dolls representing spouses. As hunger levels rose, so did the number of pins.
A Beijing artist who collected a jar of air from Provence, France, sold it at auction "to question China's foul air and express dissatisfaction."
With purported activity against cardiac disease, cancer and even ageing, the pressure on resveratrol to deliver is enormous
Health workers responding to an Ebola outbreak in Guinea had no maps to go on, so they turned to the internet for help
Researchers ignited a debate three years ago when they changed a deadly flu virus so that it could spread between people. Only five mutations are needed to turn the virus into a pandemic threat.
Hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted on Tamiflu, a drug for flu that may work no better than paracetamol, a landmark analysis says.
Giving heroin users vouchers in exchange for taking vaccines is the stuff of tabloid headlines. But it works, says addiction researcher Nicola Metrebian
An initiative to share the control group data from 34 clinical trials of cancer drugs could lead to more efficient trials and better outcomes for patients
If you know Ciroc and Patron, you may well be listening to a lot of songs that name-check brand-name alcohol. And if you're a teenager, you may be binge drinking a lot more, researchers say.