“Global warming is an exaggeration.” Have you heard that before? Or do you actually believe it? Well, the fact is that global warming has been scientifically confirmed. If that is the case then why do so many people think otherwise?
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Consider the decades-long deceptive advertising for Listerine mouthwash in the U.S. For more than 50 years, advertisements for Listerine had falsely claimed that the product helped prevent or reduce the severity of colds and sore throats. After a long legal battle, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission mandated corrective advertising that explicitly withdrew the deceptive claims. For 16 months between 1978 and 1980, the company ran an ad campaign in which the cold-related claims were retracted in 5-second disclosures midway through 30-second TV spots.
Although a telephone survey thereafter by Armstrong, Gural, and Russ (1983) did reveal a significant reduction in consumers’ belief that Listerine could alleviate colds, overall levels of acceptance of the false claim remained high. For example, more than half (57%) reported that the product’s presumed medicinal effects were a key factor in their purchasing decision.
So what causes the persistence of such false beliefs in spite of evidence claiming otherwise? A new report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest explores this issue.
The convenient lie:
The report says that rejecting information actually requires some effort, according to. The researchers say that simply accepting the message is much easier than analyzing its plausibility. Especially if the topic isn’t very important to you or you have other things on your mind, misinformation is more likely to take hold. As they say, ignorance is bliss… perhaps even if the ignorance is feigned.
So what happens when we actually sit down to evaluate the incoming information? We are likely to pay attention to the following:
- 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?
And if the misinformation is such that it conforms to our preexisting political, religious, or social point of view, it is more likely to stick… In short we are willing to accept lies when truth seems a tad too bitter.
But that doesn’t change the disconcerting consequences of misinformation. Take the example of global warming- the more we deny its existence, the more we delay action to combat it. Similarly, persistent misinformation about political issues can only lead to more damage.
5 ways to debunk misinformation:
All is not lost though; the report also mentions some strategies to counter the influence of misinformation:
- 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
Facing the truth:
So which are things that you chose to be misinformed about? Have you ever taken the cognitive effort to consider the unappealing option which might actually be true? This study made me reconsider the beliefs I chose to have… what about you?