Tuesday, September 04, 2007

We’re All Props For Propaganda

This article about a series of studies about myth debunking is really depressing to me. Basically I find our human brains sadly illogical and easily mislead.

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.
Although I spend a lot of time on this blog debunking bad science studies this one actually follows some of my own research I did on The Daily Show for my master’s thesis.
The research is painting a broad new understanding of how the mind works. Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, the studies show that the brain uses subconscious "rules of thumb" that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency.
This reminded me of a study on The Daily Show by a Diana Mutz at Annenberg where participants were shown a segment of The Daily Show. One group was told it was a comedy show the other was told it was a news program.

After watching the segments both groups were then asked questions about the information contained in the segments. What was fascinating was both groups participants showed hardly any differences in how much information they took away from the segments. One would think that if you were told you were watching a *comedy* show it would be a sign not to “believe” any information you were presented it.

But it turned out it didn’t matter what the source of the information was.

I’m greatly, greatly abbreviating what the study says, but the article's hypothesis speculated on the concept of passive acceptance of information. Basically that information (particularly when delivered in the form of entertainment or comedy) seems to passively wash into the brain without evaluation. But it’s still *there* for recall. And apparently with recall there is less evaluation about the accuracy or source of such information.

So subjects might not recall if they are reminded of something they heard in an NPR story or in a made-up Jay Leno joke. And if you read the Washington Post article apparently even being reminded of the bad information adds to the recall of bad information! (Yet also *not* hearing debunking is also not helpful in disabusing myths).

Am I the only one who finds this depressing? We're basically big sponges but once we soak up something it never goes away. This is both bad, but I guess also good. Clearly it's how we learn.

I was playing Pub Quiz with some friends and one of the questions was "Which artist so enraged a rival he was attacked with a mallet and forever disfigured."

Nobody on my team knew the answer, but one person thought he'd heard "somewhere" that it was Michelangelo. Turns out that was the right answer. But it was that randomness "I think I heard somewhere, but I don't know if I'm just pulling this out of my ass," that this myth debunking study is talking about. In this case the stakes were low (well we did lose by only one point, so maybe every point mattered). But I recall listening to a "This American Life" story about polling and producer Sarah Koenig visited the John Zogby pollng center. She then went back and called the polled voters to see how they actually voted.

One person was put down as a John Kerry supporter in the poll (this was 2004) and when the Koenig called him back, not only did he *not* support John Kerry, when he related his reasons why he didn't it was because he had completely confused him with Sen. Bob Kerrey. (The voter was incensed about Bob Kerrey's account of killing civilians in Vietnam.)

My guess is that two days after Koenig told this gentleman that his information about John Kerry was completely wrong -- that in fact he was thinking of the wrong person -- he still was going to hang on to that understand of him. Even if he discounted the now incorrect information about John Kerry, he probably would still hold him in bad standing for the stories that weren't even his.

This is just one isolated small example. But it disturbs me because it says we soak up everything and there is no "delete" button in our brains for bad information. Of course we also soak up good information but I worry about the ratio.


Anonymous said...

wow that reminds me...I am the smartest person in the world.

Anonymous said...

:-jon is not so smart as he thinks he is.

Anonymous said...

What kind of proof does :-jon have to think that he is smart?

Anonymous said...

this has gone to far with :-jon saying he's smart. Aren't we just feeding the fire of the rumor that :-jon is smart, by denying that :-jon is smart?

Unknown said...

This is insane for :-jon to claim he is the smartest person in the world.

Anonymous said...

Alright....alright...I admit...I am not the smartest person in the world.

But I am darn good looking...

Anonymous said...

"So subjects might not recall if they are reminded of something they heard in an NPR story or in a made-up Jay Leno joke."

Which, I wonder, is worse?

Jim in Cleveland

Anonymous said...

So...why don't we all have a helio-centric view of the universe?

See, we change our minds.

mental hygiene said...

Maybe if we all were told on Fox news that :-jon was "the smartest person," we'd believe it.

It works for O'Reilly.