Mythbusting — be careful!

In the Washington Post today was a story ( about research by Norbert Schwartz into what people actually understand when myths are “busted.” (See “Metacognitive
Experiences And The Intricacies Of Setting People Straight:
Implications For Debiasing And Public Information Campaigns
from the journal Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.)

Apparently, when you tell someone the truth behind the myth (“debiasing” them), it only works for 60% of your audience. The remaining 40% walk away more convinced that the myth is accurate, since it’s been confirmed by another source! The reason is that your brain interprets information in such a way that all it hears is the repetition of the myth, not its opposite.

This is a serious problem. In fact, the problem is much worse. How can you convince someone that what they believe to be true is, in fact, false? How do you debias people?

One method is to ask them to just consider the opposite. According to a 2004 paper, this will backfire in most cases, resulting in reaffirming their initial judgment.

All right, how about if you present them with contradictory evidence? Studies since 1945 have shown that this increases later acceptance of the incorrect information.

What if we provide LOTS of reasons why their information is wrong? According to studies in 1997 and 2002, this doesn’t lead to the right answer, it just confuses people.

What about increasing the stakes for an incorrect understanding? A 1999 study showed this fails as well — when people work harder to get to the right answer, they most often end up sticking with the wrong answer, but being more convinced of it!

This Is Terrible!

It gets worse. It turns out it’s possible to make people believe statements simply by repeating them over and over. Statements that rhyme are judged more “true.” Statements that are written in an easy-to-read font or color are more often declared to be true. (This is all because people rely on the “apparent familiarity” (and ease of understanding implies familiarity) of statements in order to assess truth value, in the absence of other evidence for or against the information.)

So people are easy to manipulate. So what? Well, it means if you want to sell to someone, your best bet is to use a name or slogan or mark that’s familiar to them in some way. (Perhaps this is why the trademark laws evolved the way they did — it’s really easy for someone to steal your hard-won good image.) Make it rhyme. Use good fonts. This is all obvious stuff, but it turns out the reason we do it is to increase the perception of familiarity, rather than any of a host of made-up reasons.

But there’s more. It means that it’s better to ignore rumors than to negate them head-on. The reason is that the act of confronting a rumor inherently means you’re going to repeat the rumor (or bring it to mind), thereby making it more familiar and making it appear to be more true! In the very act of trying to kill a rumor, you’re making it seem more accurate! This is because once the facts fade from short-term memory, all that’s left is familiarity, and familiar=true, even when the familiar statement is the false one.

This means arguments need to be very carefully crafted exclude any mention of the myth. A few examples come to mind:
1. Old way — “Contrary to theories that Iraq or Saddam were behind the 9/11 attacks, in fact Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.” (
New way — “9/11 was carried out by 19 people — 15 from Saudi Arabia, 3 from Egypt, and 1 from Lebanon — and was financed by a Saudi businessman.“
2. Old way — “It is a myth that shark cartilage is a cure for cancer.” (
New way — “Sharks get cancer. Studies show shark cartilage has no benefit at all for any kind of cancer.”

This also has impact on business. I can’t count the number of articles, books, and lectures I’ve encountered that are adamant about the best way to combat rumors in a company: Get in front of the rumor and quash it by talking about it. But that’s clearly not going to be effective. They lead to the boss saying, “you’ve heard rumors about layoffs. Those rumors are false.” Now we’ve left a substantial portion of the audience thinking the boss just reiterated the rumor. A better line might be, “the company is in great shape and we anticipate that there will be no layoffs this year.” Or maybe, just maybe, it’s actually better to ignore the rumors entirely!

The human brain is a funny piece of equipment, and (where possible) we need to make sure we RTFM before we screw up something. Now where did I put that manual?

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