Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Resistance is futile you will be assimilated 

So you find an Urban Legend, or a largely inaccurate story of any kind, doing the rounds. The thing to do is to put out a calm clear statement setting the record straight. Obvious and logical, no?

Well not according to recent studies which suggests that rebuttals can actually lead to a strengthening in belief of the inaccurate information. Take this example:

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine."
When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.
Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.
The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy.

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

Washington Post 4 September 2007

Making a denial repeats the ‘information’ that needs to be denied and this repetition makes it more easily remembered that the refutation.

There are sobering reflections for the political process because the human mind

…. is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something. People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true…

Washington Post, ibid

An example is the Great Killer Banana Scare of 2007 which flooded the mailboxes of many people in the USA and still pops up sometimes.

Of course being a LibDem doesn’t make us immune to this distorting process..

Incidentally a discussion of this report on the Metafilter (Hat Tip) raised an interesting side discussion on the “Toxic ‘leader’ meme” which may be of interest in our present mutters about press coverage.

The studies refreed to in the WP article are (all .pdfs, note)


Weaver et al (2007) Inferring the Popularity of an Opinion From Its Familiarity: A Repetitive Voice Can Sound Like a Chorus

Mayo et al (2002) ‘‘I am not guilty’’ vs ‘‘I am innocent’’: Successful negation may depend on the schema used for its encoding

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