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UM Study Analyzes Why People Won’t Stop Believing Falsehoods

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ANN ARBOR — Childhood vaccines do not cause autism. President Obama was born in the United States. Global warming is
confirmed by science. And yet, many people believe claims to the contrary.

In a study appearing in the current issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Western Australia and University of Queensland examined factors that cause people to resist correcting misinformation.

Misinformation can originate from rumors but also fiction, government and politicians, and organizations, the researchers say.

“Misinformation stays in memory and continues to influence our thinking, even if we correctly recall that it is mistaken,” said UM’s Colleen Seifert, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology. “Managing misinformation requires extra cognitive effort from the individual. If the topic is not very important to you, or you have other things on your mind, you are more likely to make use of misinformation. Most importantly, if the information fits with your prior beliefs, and makes a coherent story, you are more likely to use it even though you are aware that it’s incorrect.”

Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Western Australia and the study’s lead author, said “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.

“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,” he said. “And at a societal level, persistent misinformation about political issues (such as the Affordable Care Act) can create considerable harm. On a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action.”

Ideology and personal world views can be major obstacles for changing false beliefs. Despite attempts to retract misinformation, the researchers say this effort can backfire and even amplify the erroneous belief.

In fact, attempts to correct misinformation often spread the false beliefs even further, they say. That’s because corrections may repeat the false information and then explain why it is wrong. As time passes, people forget the details. When they then hear the misinformation again, it feels all the more familiar and is even more likely to be accepted, said Norbert Schwarz, the Charles Horton Cooley Collegiate Professor of Psychology and a research professor at the Institute for Social Research.

“To be effective, corrections need to tell people what’s true without repeating all the stuff that’s wrong,” said Schwarz, who is also a marketing professor at the Ross School of Business. “The more often people hear a false message, the more likely they are to believe it.”

The researchers offer some strategies for setting the record straight.

* Provide people with a narrative that replaces the gap left by 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.

Ullrich Ecker, an assistant professor at the University of Western Australia, and John Cook, a research fellow at University
of Queensland and the University of Western Australia, also co-wrote the study.

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