Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgA particular source of dread for politicians is how to respond to negative campaigning or other information impugning their character. By responding, they might only bring attention to an issue that voters hadn’t even recognized: “Contrary to my opponent’s claims, I have stopped beating my wife, and I haven’t consumed more than a fifth of hard liquor in a single sitting.”

Worse, many studies have found that even unequivocal denials fail to register in memory. In one study, participants read a report about the possible cause of a fire: a room full of oil paint and pressurized gas cylinders. Later in the report an addendum indicated the room was actually empty, but when questioned, most respondents still believed that the flammable materials in the room had caused the fire.

Clearly there is considerable power in being the first to assert the “truth.” But surely people are capable of revising their opinions based on factual evidence. Some of the greatest works of literature in history hinge on readers recognizing that an early impression of a character turned out to be false, from Oedipus learning that he has married his mother to Elizabeth Bennet realizing that Mr. Darcy isn’t actually a rat and a scoundrel. If we go on thinking Darcy is proud and prejudiced, we miss the whole point of the novel.

So why is it that sometimes we go on thinking Senator so-and-so is a wife-beater despite his denials but other times we re-evaluate our position based on the evidence? Are we just paying more (or less) attention? David Rapp and Panayiota Kendeou had student volunteers read 24 different “stories” involving a character who demonstrates a trait like sloppiness or laziness, which then may be immediately contradicted in the story. The stories were all just 13 sentences long, and each sentence was displayed one at a time on a computer screen. Here’s the beginning of a sample story:

Albert was listening to the radio. He had finished getting ready to meet his friends at the movies. They were going to see a new comedy that was getting rave reviews. He pulled a sweater over his head. Then he began to look for his shoes. They were buried under old candy wrappers, crumpled magazines, and some dirty laundry. Albert cared about the condition of his room, even though it currently wasn’t up to par.

So the idea that Albert is sloppy is refuted by the assertion that he “cared” about his room. The next part of the story then offered a situation where Albert’s sloppiness (or lack thereof) is put to the test:

Albert had to take the bus to go to the movies. He bought a newspaper to read during the ride to the theater. Albert had finished leaving through the paper when his stop was announced. Albert put the newspaper on the seat next to him. As he waited for the bus to stop, he noticed a sign asking riders not to leave garbage on the bus. Albert ignored the sign and got off the bus.

Readers were asked if this ending was plausible given the details they had learned in the story. The researchers actually created eight different versions of each story, and while each reader only saw one version of each story, eight of the 64 participants read each different version.

To see how readers were affected, the researchers systematically changed the last sentence of each part of the story. There were four different endings to the first part, and two endings to the second part of the story. The endings to the first part contradicted or confirmed the trait demonstrated in the story in different ways. The example above is a “simple refutation.” Another type was a “refutation with explanation”:

Albert cared about the condition of his room, but had only moved into the apartment yesterday.

Another ending confirmed the trait:

Albert didn’t care about keeping his room clean, and this is how it usually would look.

The final version (actually affecting the final two sentences) was a control didn’t describe his trait at all.

Finally, there were two possible endings to the second part, one which was consistent with the trait of sloppiness (as above), and the other which was inconsistent:

Albert picked up the newspaper to throw away later.

That’s a total of eight different versions of the whole story. Remember, each individual reader only saw one version. Over the course of the entire study, they saw every possible combination of refutations/confirmations/controls/endings, just focused around different stories. Here are the results:


There’s a lot of data in this graph, but the take-home point is relatively simple, especially when we consider it in the context of our example. The trait presented in the story is “sloppiness.” When the ending of the story is consistent with the notion that Albert is sloppy, and nothing in the story contradicts that notion, then nearly 80 percent of readers say the ending is plausible. But when the trait is refuted in the story, as in our example above, the portion of readers agreeing with a “sloppy” ending decreases significantly. When Albert’s sloppiness is refuted with the explanation that he just moved, most readers believe it’s implausible that Albert would have left his newspaper on the bus.

The researchers also found that readers spent more time reading the sentences that contradicted the trait in the story, again suggesting that readers do pay attention to refutations.

In two additional experiments with the same stories, Rapp and Kendeou looked at the impact of different sets of instructions, and found one additional curious result:


When they gave no instructions on how to read the stories, then readers behaved differently with simple refutations of the trait compared to full explanations of why the trait wasn’t true. With simple refutations and no instructions, when the outcome of the story was consistent with the trait (Albert is sloppy and left the newspaper on the bus), readers spent less time reading the outcome then when it was inconsistent (Albert is sloppy and picked up the newspaper). Even though the trait was refuted, their reading behavior followed the identical pattern as when the trait was confirmed by the story. Only when the refutation was accompanied by an explanation (Albert had just moved in to his apartment) did readers spend more time reading the unexpected outcome (Albert isn’t actually sloppy but left the newspaper on the bus).

But when readers were instructed to read carefully, this difference between simple refutation and refutation with explanation disappeared. As you might expect, more time overall was spent reading, but readers also spent more time reading unexpected outcomes (Albert isn’t actually sloppy but left the newspaper on the bus) compared to expected ones (Albert isn’t actually sloppy and he picked up the newspaper).

This result may offer some insight into why politicians have so much difficulty refuting those nasty campaign ads: when the public isn’t paying much attention, they may be less likely to allow the refutation of an attack to replace the original memory of the attack itself.

Rapp, D.N., Kendeou, P. (2007). Revising what readers know: Updating text representations during narrative comprehension. Memory & Cognition, 35(8), 2019-2032.


  1. #1 Xerxes
    February 5, 2008

    It’s very strange to use a newspaper in this context, since a newspaper is rarely considered to be “garbage” just because it’s been read once. In many places (like NYC), people commonly read newspapers and leave them on the bus or subway for others. A food wrapper or plastic bag would have been much less ambiguous.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    February 5, 2008

    I agree, Xerxes, but that’s just one example out of 24 stories. Presumably little details like this end up as undetectable ripples in the sea of data.

  3. #3 Patrick
    February 5, 2008

    I think these data also fit very well with current research on persuasion (and, in fact, a politician denying the truth of a particular negative ad could be viewed as a form of persuasion) – when people are both motivated to and have the opportunity to pay attention to the content of a message, stronger arguments tend to result in greater rates of persuasion. However, when people are either unmotivated or have no opportunity to pay attention to the content of a message, they tend to focus on the surface characteristics of the message, like the amount of content or the mode of presentation.

    As applied to this study, when people are instructed to read the stories carefully, they are both motivated to and have the opportunity to process the text fully, and so a simple refutation is approximately equivalent to a refutation with an explanation in persuasive power. However, when people are unmotivated to process the message fully, they base their decision on the surface characteristics of the message – namely, the length. Therefore, the refutation with an explanation becomes the more powerful persuader, simply because there is more text devoted to showing that the character’s actions are consistent.

    As applied to political ads, I would say that part of the reason that politicians have difficulty refuted nasty campaign ads is that most people are unmotivated to process the refutation deeply, and therefore will be relatively unpersuaded by a simple refutation.

  4. #4 Neil Strickland
    February 5, 2008

    This is pretty weak. When I read

    They were buried under old candy wrappers, crumpled magazines, and some dirty laundry. Albert cared about the condition of his room, even though it currently wasn’t up to par.

    I just think that the narrator is wrong, and is making excuses for Albert, for some reason. There is no inconsistency in that.

  5. #5 Denis Akhapkin
    February 6, 2008

    I agree with Neil.

  6. #6 Ian
    February 6, 2008

    So where does Lady Susan factor into this since she’s been incomplete for all these years?!

    Just kidding. But I am wondering if the study was a little sloppy!

    Were these results skewed by conducting this study on students rather than on the general populace, and if so, by how much?

    By making the story about a male (Albert? Where did that name come from?!) rather than about a female, did they alter perceptions?

    By setting this on public transport rather than in some other location did they alter perceptions?

    It definitely needs more work.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    February 6, 2008

    Remember, there are 24 different stories. You may have objections about the particular example I chose, but each story is different, with different settings, different characters, and different traits. Still we see the effect.

    I also omitted many details about the study in the interest of brevity (it was getting quite long for a CogDaily post). The study was not “sloppy,” but in fact was quite carefully controlled. For example, stories were controlled for average number of syllables, and positive and negative personality traits.

  8. #8 acm
    February 7, 2008

    yeah, they may have 24 different stories, but if the problems with this one speak to the carefulness of their design, I’d say they have a long way to go toward meaningful results. both the “newspapers are a gift” and “why is the narrator making excuses” problems are pretty substantial and foreseeable (although arguably the latter is a reasonable parallel to political candidates defending themselves)…

  9. #9 Utbildning
    February 10, 2008

    A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to discuss around this very topic with Merrie Spaeth, Director of Media Relations under President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Her view was that you ought to avoid using any words, phrases or the like that your opponent is trying to “stick” on to you. And instead turn the whole thing around to your own advantage. Now, this doesn’t even sound easy so you may just understand how difficult it is to master this technique during a live broadcast when a very skilled reporter is doing everything to bring you down. However, one main point is to have your own communication theme already prepared that you can use towards the “opponent” or else you will be lost.

  10. #10 Suricou Raven
    February 11, 2008

    This is a serious annoyance to skeptics in general. We want to argue against the ‘woo’ – acupuncture, homoepathy, ghosts and supernatural things, feng shae, astrology, all the other quite silly ideas that people continue to believe in. Yet, even in trying to convince people through logical argument that all of the above are nonsense, skeptics risk promoting them even further.

    I last noticed it when I was trying to convince someone in a political channel that Obama is not a muslim, and the rumors saying that he is are lies. I failed in that, but in the process exposed someone who had not heard the rumors to them – and they immediatly jumped on them.

    Incidentially, there was another study some years ago investigating political biases… I cant remember the details, but it involved asking people if they agreed with some statements made by a non-existant senator. Half the subjects were told the senator was a republican, half he was democrat, and the results correlated with the subject’s stated political preference. Unsurprisingly, people were much more willing to accept claims made by someone from the party they supported.

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