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“Belief Perseverance”: Correcting false information without inadvertently reinforcing it

Monday, October 22, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

We’ve written before about how false information becomes accepted as truth by many of us. The proof this remains an issue is in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center which found the number of conservative Republicans who believe President Obama is a Muslim has doubled since 2008. Like the ‘birther’ controversy (which simply will not die) certain pieces of demonstrably false information stick and become lightning rods for controversy among those holding opposing views.

The reality is that trying to re-educate about the inaccuracy of false information can backfire and instead makes the false belief even stronger! It’s called “belief perseverance” and we’ve all seen it in action. People showing us their belief perseverance don’t listen to new facts and modify their beliefs. They listen with an ear toward reinforcing their preexisting beliefs. Please, don’t confuse them with your facts and evidence!

The decision to attack erroneous information or ignore it is a difficult one, and politicians suffer for their misjudgment of it all of the time. The ones we remember most are the decisions to ignore non-central controversies that simply don’t go away. In the internet/cable news echo chamber, nothing dies down as quickly as it would have 20 or 30 years ago. Ask John Kerry (swift boats), Al Gore (birth of the internet), Barack Obama (birth place) and Mitt Romney (taxes).

You don’t have to simply give in though! New work based on a review of the misinformation literature looks at the many ways misinformation is spread–through the media (traditional and social), through fiction, politicians, governments and various vested interests. They also examine how individuals resist correction of preexisting beliefs, especially those that represent core values (like theories of evolution, sexual orientation, religious beliefs versus no religious beliefs). And basically we resist correction because actually correcting false beliefs requires cognitive effort and frankly, most of us don’t care for exerting much cognitive effort to change our belief systems when they seem just fine, thanks anyway!

Finally, the authors make recommendations for how to debunk misinformation without forcing the listener to dig in their heels and resist your efforts. What we appreciate is that these are all strategies we’ve recommended here previously. It’s good to see that someone else’s review of the persuasion literature concurs!

Provide people with a narrative that replaces the gaps left by false information. Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than on the myths.

Make information takeaways simple and brief.

Consider your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold dear. Strengthen your message through strategic and measured repetition.

These are what the researchers call “evidence-based strategies”. They are based on a careful review of current and historical research into how efforts to change pre-existing beliefs fare in the real world. These work.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13 (3), 106-131 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612451018


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