Why does some misinformation “stick” in the public consciousness? Why do people continue to believe untrue things, even after they’ve been shown to be a lie?

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. It’s easier for a person to believe a simple lie, than to have one’s mind changed by information that is new and novel.

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. This means that if you believe something for political or religious reasons, it’s far harder to change a person’s mind and have them understand a fact that differs from that person’s opinion.

The report notes that efforts to retract misinformation often backfire. The research found that contrary to common wisdom, trying to correct misinformation actually may lead to the strengthening of an erroneous belief. The researchers found that it is extremely difficult to dislodge strongly held beliefs through rational or logical methods. This was found to be especially true for social, religious, and politically-held beliefs.

“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:

  • Provide people with an alternative account to fill the gap left by the retraction of false information;
  • Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than the myths;
  • Make sure that the information you want people to take away is simple and brief;
  • Consider your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold; and
  • Strengthen your message through repetition.

The report was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Source: The University of Western Australia

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