The truth about misinformation

November 04, 2019

In today's fast-paced digital age, information can become outdated rapidly and people must constantly update their memories. But changing our previous understanding of the news we hear or the products we use isn't always easy, even when holding onto falsities can have serious consequences.

A pharmaceutical company, for example, may present a testimonial about a consumer's positive experience with a new medication, along with details about the potential side effects and interactions with other drugs. Later, if the company announces that the drug is less effective than previously reported, many people will continue clinging to the belief that the drug is effective, according to results from a new study. The findings are available online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

When people read or hear stories, they build mental models of events that are linked together in a cause-effect chain, and this is embedded into their memories, says study author Anne Hamby, an assistant professor in the department of marketing at Boise State University in Idaho. Even if they later discover that one aspect of the chain of events is incorrect, it's difficult for people to change their memory of a story because this would create a gap in the chain. This is known as the continued influence effect.

Hamby and her colleagues were interested in testing whether the continued influence effect was more common when stories included an explanation for the outcome of the story--rather than leaving out this detail. In one experiment, participants read about a man who was diagnosed with a disease and took a prescribed medication at night and with a glass of lemonade. The drug does not work and he returns to the doctor. Half of the participants read that the doctor explains why the drug did not work: The man needed to take the medication in the morning because hormones released at night block the effectiveness of the drug. The other participants did not get an explanation about why the drug was ineffective.

At the end of the story, all the participants are presented with another fact: citrus-based foods and drinks interfere with the absorption of the drug. Later, they learn that this information was false. The results showed that participants who did not get an explanation for the drug's ineffectiveness had difficulty rejecting the falsity of the drug-citrus interaction. "This group had used the citrus interaction to explain why the drug didn't work in the story, while the other group already had an explanation in mind," Hamby says. "Once the first group inserted causal information into a mental model of story, it was harder to remove it."

Though it's difficult to change an existing version of events, the researchers discovered that people are more willing to update their memories if something bad has happened to a character, such as a death or serious illness. "People are more motivated to do the mental work of updating the story if the change leads to a better outcome because the character's well-being could be related to their own well-being," she says.

Hamby hopes the findings will inform how companies and news organizations retract misinformation. "It may not work to simply send out a press release or make a public service announcement saying that information is incorrect," she says. "In order to effectively change beliefs, we need to give consumers an alternative cause and effect explanation." For example, rather than saying previous studies linking autism to vaccines are false, it may be wiser to explain other causes of autism.

She also hopes that the findings will promote tolerance of others. "We tend to assume that if something is factual, people should accept it," Hamby says. "We are not always aware of how information gets lodged into our memories, and perhaps this understanding could reduce some of the partisan animosity in today's political climate."
-end-
The study abstract is available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jcpy.1135

Study author contact information:

Anne Hamby, PhD
Assistant Professor
Boise State University, Idaho
annehamby@boisestate.edu

Society for Consumer Psychology

Related Memories Articles from Brightsurf:

Can sleep protect us from forgetting old memories?
Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine report that sleep may help people to learn continuously through their lifetime by encoding new memories and protecting old ones.

Why are memories attached to emotions so strong?
Multiple neurons in the brain must fire in synchrony to create persistent memories tied to intense emotions, new research from Columbia neuroscientists has found.

False memories of crime appear real when retold to others
People are no better than chance at identifying when someone else is recounting a false or real memory of a crime, according to a new UCL study published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Can traumatic memories be erased?
Tokyo, Japan - Scientists from Tokyo Metropolitan University have discovered that Drosophila flies lose long-term memory (LTM) of a traumatic event when kept in the dark, the first confirmation of environmental light playing a role in LTM maintenance.

The way of making memories
How does the brain translate information from the outside world into something we remember?

A new discovery: How our memories stabilize while we sleep
Scientists at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Biology (CNRS/Coll├Ęge de France/INSERM) have shown that delta waves emitted while we sleep are not generalized periods of silence during which the cortex rests, as has been described for decades in the scientific literature.

How memories form and fade
Caltech researchers identify the neural processes that make some memories fade rapidly while other memories persist over time.

Firework memories
Recently Weizmann Institute scientists succeeded in recording these rapid bursts of activity -- called 'hippocampal ripples' -- in the human brain, and they were able to demonstrate their importance as a neuronal mechanism underlying the engraving of new memories and their subsequent recall.

Your nose knows when it comes to stronger memories
Memories are stronger when the original experiences are accompanied by unpleasant odors, a team of researchers has found.

Proof it's possible to enhance or suppress memories
Boston University neuroscientist Steve Ramirez and collaborators have published a new paper showing memories are pliable if you know which regions of the brain's hippocampus to stimulate, which could someday enable personalized treatment for people with PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Read More: Memories News and Memories Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.