Myths, hoaxes, and memory

The Washington Post has described a study by psychologist Norbert Schwartz which appears to show that attempts to dispel myths often have exactly the opposite result:

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

The research also highlights the disturbing reality that 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. [my emphasis]

So, the researchers suggest that the best way to counter a myth is to present opposing information without denying the original incorrect statement. Instead of saying “Saddam didn’t attack the US on 9/11, Osama bin Laden did”, one should say “Osama bin Laden was the one who attacked the US on 9/11”.

The article goes on to discuss some persistent myths:

…many in the Arab world [and not just the Arab world! — ed] are convinced that the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was not the work of Arab terrorists but was a controlled demolition; that 4,000 Jews working there had been warned to stay home that day; and that the Pentagon was struck by a missile rather than a plane.

The keys to making something memorable are repetition and emotional content. Probably a classic case of effective propaganda that has made use of these is the case of the ‘killing’ of 10-year old Mohammad al-Durah. Evidence may shortly be forced to light which will establish that not only was al-Durah not shot by Israelis, but rather that the entire incident was staged (see Joanna Chandler, The Al-Durah Hoax). But even if this is demonstrated conclusively, the effect on worldwide perceptions will be minimal.

Indeed, the Schwartz research indicates that discussing the hoax to refute it may only embed it more firmly in people’s minds!

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