Trying to debunk a myth can, ironically, often just reinforce it!

The Washington Post ran a fascinating article today about the persistence of myths, even in the face of a solid debunking. We’re not talking about Bigfoot or UFOs here either: even perfectly mundane information seems to get easily garbled and reversed in people’s memories:

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either “true” or “false.” Among those identified as false were statements such as “The side effects are worse than the flu” and “Only older people need flu vaccine.”

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC. (empahsis added)

That last issue is probably the most incredible of all. Not only does trying to debunk myths sometimes backfire, but if the debunking comes from a credible source, many people can actually become more certain of the falsehood!

Of course, as the article notes, a large part of this effect seems to come from what I would have expected: the main reason people get particular things wrong is because they don’t care about getting them right in the first place. Correcting error takes real time and effort, and in any population you’ll always have a decent amount of people just not interested enough in the particular subject to bother. This isn’t necessarily because they are stupid or irrational either: they just don’t value learning or retaining information about the particular subject in question. Heck, I’d like to think of myself as decently intelligent and widely informed, but if you quizzed me on a subject like the history of quilt-making 3 days after forcing me to read about it, I doubt I’d do very well either.

Still, for anyone that aims to purge myths and debunk unjustified claims, this article should be a pretty humbling read. Once bad information is out there, correcting it is an uphill battle all the way… which is just one more reason to encourage people to be more skeptical in the first place.

(Hat Tip to RMZ from the the Skeptics Guide message boards.)

7 Responses to Trying to debunk a myth can, ironically, often just reinforce it!

  1. agnosis says:

    I’ve an advanced degree in the field of psychology, and one of the most basic facts we learn very quickly is that people have terrible memories. In the case of the CDC, they would have been better producing a pamphlet with just facts that are true. People would remember that better and there would be a much lower chance that people would get confused about which were fact and which were myth.

  2. Yikes – does this mean that any attempt to convince a sky-fairy believer that they may have no basis for their belief simply strengthens that belief?

  3. Bad says:

    No, I think this is really more about specific arguments or myths rather than entire belief systems, which are a rather different matter altogether. I also doubt that the “don’t care” effect applies as much to debates as much as it does to sort of general cultural knowledge like “Saddam involved in 9/11” or “Jews knew about 9/11.”

    I’m also not aware of anyone that actually believes in sky fairies in any case.

  4. evanescent says:

    Top post Bad, very good! Instead of trying to cut off the tail we should go for the snake’s head: getting people to think critically in the first place would solve so many problems, and people wouldn’t believe most of the junk they end up believing!

  5. […] Anti-vaccine Autism scare kills kid This is what happens when bad ideas enter the population and prove difficult to dislodge:  […]

  6. Joan says:

    The problem is that many people WANT to believe in all that junk. It’s just like religious people, many of them believe in God because they need to believe there’s something else. I tend to see it in my field (nutrition) that people have a big lack of culture about sciences in general, so don’t try to explain them, for instance, that fat burners are a scam and they don’t burn fat. They don’t care about how much biochemistry I may know… advertising says it works and all their friends are taking that stuff.

  7. Bad says:

    Again, I don’t see this as being quite as directly related to religious belief systems as you are implying. Certainly, it can apply to specific facts, myths, and claims that help support some religious convictions, but the effect here seems a lot more localized than whole general worldviews.

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