Battlepanda: Say it ain't so. But how?


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Say it ain't so. But how?

Human beings are stupid in interesting ways:

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.

The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.[snip]

...once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Basically, until people start paying attention, we're doomed as a democracy. When information is absorbed passively in a peripheral manner, strong denials of untruths might have a counterproductive effect of strengthening the untruth instead of debunking it.

This reminds me of that Far Side cartoon where the exasperated owner is telling off his dog, saying "Ginger, you bad dog, if you keep misbehaving like this then you won't be getting any more yummy food..." and all the dog can hear is "Ginger...yummy food." Fill in analogous example with "Saddam" and "9/11" here.

An interview with the reporter who wrote the article above, Shankar Vedantam, from On The Media:

By the way, a collection of Vedantam's Department of Human Nature columns can be found here.

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