Why is misinformation “sticky”?

Related to this recent post about how our intuition about a problem can often provide us with a wrong answer, and how it takes some mental effort to reject this intuitive response to find the correct one, Farnam Street points to Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychological scientist who says that an incorrect piece of information (misinformation) can be “sticky”, in the sense that it can take a long time for us to realize that it is, in fact, incorrect. Why? In a nutshell:

The main reason that misinformation is sticky, according to the researchers, is that rejecting information actually requires cognitive effort. 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?

Misinformation is especially sticky when it conforms to our preexisting political, religious, or social point of view. Because of this, ideology and personal worldviews can be especially difficult obstacles to overcome.

Even worse, efforts to retract misinformation often backfire, paradoxically amplifying the effect of the erroneous belief. [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately, when our store of mental energy is limited, we may not always be willing to expend mental energy decoding which pieces of information may not be accurate. This is particularly concerning, considering the increasing importance of being able to determine the validity of information in the world. This is another pitfall related to our willingness to rely on intuition too often – our lack of a willingness to question. Effortful or not, this is a cornerstone of thought and growth.



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