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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