How do you correct misconceptions within the general public?

The answer is, not easily.

Norbert Schwarz has been studying this issue for years and earlier this year released a study showing how difficult it was to correct people’s common misconceptions, even when you presented them with the factually correct information. The misconceptions or myths not only continued, but often were reinforced by the attempt to correct them:

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.

Denials of bad information simply reinforce it:

The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Researchers have no answer as to the best way to undo this reinforcing behavior. Staying quiet also reinforces the false information.

One study cited in the article found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. But that may be difficult to do, since the original myth might have some truth in it that needs to be addressed.

The Washington Post has the full story.