Corrections and When They Work

A correction only serves its purpose (to correct our falsely-held beliefs) if we are predisposed to believe the correction itself. If we disagree with the correction, however, it instead acts to actually reinforce our incorrect beliefs (the “backfire effect”).

That’s the conclusion drawn from research conducted by Brendan Nyhan, looking at how we avoid cognitive dissonance in the face of corrective information (pdf).

Brendan’s research on cognitive dissonance and corrections has been nicely summarised by Ryan Sager in a couple of posts: one that looks briefly at the effect of corrections on misinformation, and another looking in great detail at the roots of the anti-vaccine movement.

We find that responses to corrections in mock news articles differ significantly according to subjects’ ideological views.  As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases. […]

Test subjects read mock news articles featuring misleading statements about well-known but ideologically contentious subjects such as the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. Half of their subjects read articles including only the misleading statements; half read articles that also included a correction.

By comparing the two groups of respondents, [it was] determined that the ideology of the subjects tended to predict reactions. Efforts to correct misperceptions were more likely to succeed among those ideologically sympathetic to the correction, such as liberals to the notion that WMD were never found in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed. But the corrections tended to “boomerang” among those ideologically predisposed to believe the erroneous information. Thus, conservative subjects who had read the correction were even more.

Every article Sager points to in these posts is worth reading, especially Is Health Care Turnaround a Bad Bet?, How Facts Backfire and Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach.

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