05:36am Tuesday 26 May 2020

Misinformation: why it sticks and how to fix it

A new study by researchers at The University of Western Australia explores why people continue to deny truths that can have a profound impact on politics, health and society in general. 

The report, led by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky and Dr Ullrich Ecker of UWA’s School of Psychology, highlights the cognitive factors that make certain pieces of misinformation “stick” and identifies some strategies for setting the record straight. 

The main reason that misinformation sticks, according to the researchers, is that rejecting information actually requires more cognitive effort than simply accepting that the message is true.  If the topic isn’t very important to you or you have other things on your mind, misinformation is more likely to take hold.

When we do take the time to thoughtfully evaluate incoming information, there are only a few features that we are likely to pay attention to: Does the information fit with other things I believe in? Does it make a coherent story with what I already know? Does it come from a credible source? Do others believe it?

Misinformation is especially likely to stick when it conforms to our pre-existing political, religious, or social point of view. Because of this, ideology and personal worldviews can be especially difficult obstacles to overcome.

The report confirms that efforts to retract misinformation often backfire and can 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,” Professor 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 (eg:  Obama’s health care reform) can create considerable harm.  On a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action.”

Though misinformation may be difficult to correct, the report suggests psychological science strategies that have the potential to help communicators 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
  • Strengthen your message through repetition

The report, Misinformation and Its Correction Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing, is published in the September issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Media references

Dr Ullrich Ecker (UWA School of Psychology)  (+61 8)  6488 3257
Professor Stephan Lewandowsky (UWA School of Psychology)  (+61 8)  6488 3231 / 7862
Michael Sinclair-Jones (UWA Public Affairs)  (+61 8)  6488 3229  /  (+61 4) 00 700 783

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