During this election year people on both sides of the political spectrum are scratching their heads asking how their opponents can possibly believe what they do. Republicans have questioned whether President Barack Obama was actually born in the United states, even after his official birth certificate was made public, and Democrats have questioned the current Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney, on whether or not he has paid income taxes over the past 10 years. There is debate about whether global warming and climate change are natural occurrences, or whether some of it can be attributed to man. Both sides seem firm in their beliefs that their side has the facts and the other side is simply spinning the truth.
How can people live in the same country but have such differing opinions about what is true and what isn’t? John Oliver and Jason Jones from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, went to both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, where they interviewed attendees to asked what they thought about the mood in politics this year? Although comical in the delivery, the divide is no laughing matter.
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An article in Science Daily titled “Misinformation: Why it sticks and How To Fix It” helps to answer the question, and also offers tips for overcoming the misinformation syndrome. The article discusses a new report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, and explores why certain information sticks and some doesn’t.
Psychological scientist Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia and colleagues found that rejecting information actually requires cognitive effort. In other words, thinking is hard.
The article explains it this way,
“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?”
When you add in preexisting points of view brought about by religious or political affiliations, the report says the misinformation syndrome gets even stickier and more difficult to overcome.
"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," says Lewandowsky.
He goes on to say,
"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. At a societal level, persistent misinformation about political issues (e.g., Obama's health care reform) can create considerable harm. On a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action."
Lewandowsky and his colleagues offer practical strategies for counteracting the false and potentially harmful information. Through education, people and communicators can learn about the power of misinformation and the harm it can do, thereby giving them more viable choices about what to believe.
In their report, Lewandowsky and colleagues offer the following 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
The article goes on to say,
"Research has shown that attempts at "debiasing" can be effective in the real world when based on these evidence-based strategies.
The report, "Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing," is published in the September issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest and is written by Stephan Lewandowsky and Ullrich Ecker of the University of Western Australia, Colleen Seifert and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, and John Cook of the University of Queensland and the University of Western Australia.