Why does some misinformation “stick” in the public consciousness?
Researchers at The University of Western Australia — who noted several instances of misinformation, such as childhood vaccines cause autism, global warming is a hoax, or President Barack Obama was not born in the United States — say that rejecting information requires more cognitive effort than simply accepting that the message is true.
The new study, led by psychologists Drs. Stephan Lewandowsky and Ullrich Ecker, highlights the cognitive factors that make certain pieces of misinformation “stick” and identifies several strategies for “setting the record straight.”
Misinformation is especially likely to stick when it conforms to our pre-existing political, religious, or social point of view, according to the researchers. Because of this, ideology and personal worldviews can be especially difficult obstacles to overcome.
The report notes that efforts to retract misinformation often backfire and actually lead to the strengthening of an 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,” Lewandowsky said.
“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 can create considerable harm.
“And on a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action.”
Though misinformation is difficult to correct, the study highlights several strategies that can help counteract the power of misinformation, including:
The report was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
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