Monosodium glutamate causes headaches. You have to wait 24 hours to file a missing person report in the US. The black belt in martial arts means someone is an expert. Medieval people believed the earth was flat.
All of these facts are completely false. Misinformation has a strange tendency to stick around. Even when an incorrect ‘fact’ is debunked, it can still linger for years, even in the minds of those who know it is wrong. Why is misinformation so enduring?
Psychological scientist Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia and colleagues highlight some of the cognitive factors that make misinformation so “sticky.”
The main reason that misinformation is sticky, according to the researchers, is that rejecting information actually requires cognitive effort. Weighing the plausibility and the source of a message is cognitively more difficult than simply accepting that the message is true — it requires additional motivational and cognitive resources. If the topic isn’t very important to you or you have other things on your mind, misinformation is more likely to take hold.
And 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 sticky when it conforms to our preexisting political, religious, or social point of view. Because of this, ideology and personal worldviews can be especially difficult obstacles to overcome.
Even worse, efforts to retract misinformation often backfire, paradoxically amplifying the effect of the erroneous belief.
As for tips to correct misinformation? Lewandowsky points to
(1) providing people with a narrative to replace the gap left by false information; (2) focusing on the facts you want to highlight, rather than the myths; (3) making sure that the information you want people to take away is simple and brief; (4) considering your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold; and (5) strengthen your message through repetition
If you want more detail on correcting misinformation, I highly recommend Lewandowsky’s Debunking Handbook.