The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either “true” or “false.” Among those identified as false were statements such as “The side effects are worse than the flu” and “Only older people need flu vaccine.”
When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.
Oh, and it only gets worse; more after the jump.
Here’s the kicker: “Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.”
So not only did the fact sheets fail to correct the misinformation and myths people believed about influenza vaccination, they actual solidified them–and gave them the CDC’s stamp of approval. Great…
The experiments do not show that denials are completely useless; if that were true, everyone would believe the myths. But the mind’s bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and are less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts.
The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.
Obviously, this has implications for correcting these myths. The article suggests that, rather than repeat them (as the CDC “true and false” pamphlet does, for example), one should just rephrase the statement, eliminating the false portion altogether so as to not reinforce it further (since repetition, even to debunk it, reaffirms the false statement). Ignoring it also makes things worse, as the story noted that other research “…found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true.”
Of course, all this is easier said than done–and not everyone wants to “bust” these sorts of myths. Indeed, politicians and others interested in getting their (maybe not wholly correct) message out there can take (and have taken) advantage of this phenomenon–get their mantra out there first, and it’s reinforced even when an opponent tries to correct it.