[Some fairly basic, indeed crude, points made here regarding
the application of cognitive science to the realm of political
media. Nevertheless, it should be of interest to those who have
been following the debates on framing, cognitive science, and
how best to counter misinformation - Ken]
Cognitive Science and FactCheck.org, or Why We (Still) Do
What We Do
October 17, 2007
by Joe Miller
Have you heard about how Al Gore claimed to have invented the
Internet? What about how Iraq was responsible for the attacks
on the World Trade Center? Or maybe the one about how George W.
Bush has the lowest IQ of any U.S. president ever? Chances are
pretty good that you might even believe one (or more) of these
claims. And yet all three are false. At FactCheck.org our stock
in trade is debunking these sorts of false or misleading political
claims, so when the Washington Post told us that we might just
be making things worse, it really made us stop and think.
A Sept. 4 article in the Post discussed several recent studies
that all seemed to point to the same conclusion: Debunking myths
can backfire because people tend to remember the myth but forget
what the debunker said about it. As Hebrew University psychologist
Ruth Mayo explained to the Post, If you think 9/11 and Iraq,
this is your association, this is what comes in your mind. Even
if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection
with Saddam Hussein and 9/11. That leaves myth busters like
us with a quandary: Could we, by exposing political malarkey,
just be cementing it in voters minds? Are we contributing
to the problem we hope to solve?
Possibly. Yet we think that what we do is still necessary. And
we think the facts back us up.
The Post story wasnt all that surprising to those who follow
the findings of cognitive science research, which tells us much
of our thinking happens just below the level of consciousness.
The more times we hear two particular bits of information associated,
for example, the more likely it is that well recall those
bits of information. This is how we learn multiplication tables
and why we still know the Big Mac jingle.
Our brains also take some surprising shortcuts. In a study published
in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Virginia
Tech psychologist Kimberlee Weaver shows that the more easily
we recall something the more likely we are to think of it as being
true. Its a useful shortcut since, typically, easily recalled
information really is true. But combine this rule with the brains
tendency to better remember bits of information that are repeated
frequently, and we can run into trouble: Were likely to
believe anything we hear repeated frequently enough. At FactCheck.org
weve noted how political spin-masters exploit this tendency
ruthlessly, repeating dubious or false claims endlessly until,
in the minds of many voters, they become true. Making matters
worse, a study by Hebrew University's Mayo shows that people often
forget denial tags. Thus many people who hear the
phrase Iraq does not possess WMDs will remember Iraq
and possess WMDs while forgetting the does not
The counter to this requires an understanding of how it is that
the brain forms beliefs.
In 1641, French philosopher René Descartes suggested that
the act of understanding an idea comes first; we accept the idea
only after evaluating whether or not it rings true. Thirty-six
years later, the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza offered a
very different account of belief formation. Spinoza proposed that
understanding and believing happen simultaneously. We might come
to reject something we held to be true after considering it more
carefully, but belief happens prior to the examination. On Spinozas
model, the brain forms beliefs automatically. Rejecting a belief
requires a conscious act.
Unfortunately, not everyone bothers to examine the ideas they
encounter. On the Cartesian model, that failure results in neither
belief nor disbelief. But on the Spinozan model we end up with
a lot of unexamined (and often false) convictions.
One might rightly wonder how a 17th-century philosophical dispute
could possibly be relevant to modern myth-busting. Interestingly,
though, Harvard psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert designed a series
of experiments aimed specifically at determining whether Descartes
or Spinoza got it right. Gilberts verdict: Spinoza is the
winner. People who fail to carry through the evaluation process
are likely to believe whatever statements they read. Gilbert concludes
that [p]eople do have the power to assent, to reject, and
to suspend their judgment, but only after they have believed the
information to which they have been exposed.
Gilberts studies show that, initially at least, we do believe
everything we hear. But its equally obvious that we reject
many of those beliefs, sometimes very quickly and other times
only after considerable work. We may not be skeptical by nature,
but we can nonetheless learn to be skeptical. Iowa States
Gary Wells has shown that social interaction with those who have
correct information is often sufficient to counter false views.
Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology
by the University of Southern Californias Peter Kim shows
that meeting a charge (regardless of its truth or falsity) with
silence increases the chances that others will believe the claim.
Giving false claims a free pass, in other words, is more likely
to result in false beliefs (a notion with which 2004 presidential
candidate John Kerry, who didnt immediately respond to accusations
by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about his Vietnam
record, is all too familiar).
So, yes, a big ad budget often trumps the truth, but that doesnt
mean we should go slumping off in existential despair. You see,
the Spinozan model shows that we will believe whatever we hear
only if the process of evaluating those beliefs is somehow short-circuited.
Humans are not helpless automatons in the face of massive propaganda.
We may initially believe whatever we hear, but we are fully capable
of evaluating and rejecting beliefs that turn out not to be accurate.
Our brains dont do this naturally; maintaining a healthy
skeptical attitude requires some conscious effort on our part.
It also requires a basic understanding of logic and it
requires accurate information. Thats where this Web site
If busting myths has some bad consequences, allowing false information
to flow unchecked is far worse. Facts are essential if we are
to overcome our brains tendency to believe everything it
hears. As a species, were still pretty new to that whole
process. Aristotle invented logic just 2,500 years ago
a mere blink of the eye when compared with the 200,000 years we
Homo sapiens relied on our brains reflex responses to avoid
being eaten by lions. We still have a long way to go. Throw in
a tsunami of ads and Internet bluster and the path gets even harder,
which is why were delighted to find new allies at PolitiFact.com
and the Washington Posts FactChecker. Well continue
to bring you the facts. And you can continue to use them wisely.
Descartes, Rene. Principles of Philosophy. Tr. John Cottingham.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 .
Gilbert, Daniel T., Romin W. Tafarodi and and Patrick S. Malone.
"You Can't Not Believe Everything Your Read." Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology 65.2 (1993): 221-233.
Kim, Peter H., et al. "Silence Speaks Volumes: The Effectiveness
of Reticence in Comparison to Apology and Denial for Responding
to Integrity- and Competence-Based Trust Violations. Journal of
Applied Psychology 92.4 (2007): 893-908.
Mayo, Ruth, Yaacov Schul and Eugene Burnstein. "'I Am Not
Guilty' vs. 'I Am Innocent': Successful Negation May Depend on
the Schema Used for its Encoding." Journal of Experimental
Social Psychology 40.4 (2004): 433-449.
Spinoza, Baruch de. Ethics. Tr. Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1994 .
Weaver, Kimberlee, et al. "Inferring the Popularity of an
Opinion from its Familiarity: A Repetitive Voice Can Sound Like
a Chorus." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92.5
Wright, E.F. and Gary L. Wells. "Does Group Discussion Attenuate
the Dispositional Bias?" Journal of Applied Psychology 15