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Stopping false beliefs – lessons for journalists from brain science

August 25th, 2008, 9:43pm by Sam Wang

In my day job I’m a neuroscientist. Usually this does not intersect with politics, but today’s an exception.

In June, my book co-author Sandra Aamodt and I wrote for the New York Times about how our brains lie to us, allowing the formation of false beliefs. Examples of false beliefs include rumors about Barack Obama’s religion, or about John McCain fathering a mixed-race child. We didn’t realize at the time just how relevant our topic would be in this year’s campaign.

Dan Froomkin asked us if brain science has any lessons for journalists in how to prevent false belief formation. The answer is yes!

In today’s Nieman Watchdog we have an article that says:

The human brain…does not save information permanently, as do computer drives and printed pages. Recent research suggests that every time the brain recalls a piece of information, it is “written” down again and often modified in the process. Along the way, the fact is gradually separated from its original context. For example, most people don’t remember how they know that the capital of Massachusetts is Boston.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, leads people to forget over time where they heard a statement – and whether it is true. A statement that is initially not believed can gain credibility during the months that it takes to reprocess memories from short-term to longer-term storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications may gain strength.

And here’s the corresponding lesson for journalists:

1. State the facts without reinforcing the falsehood. Repeating a false rumor can inadvertently make it stronger. In covering the controversy over a New Yorker cover caricaturing Barack and Michelle Obama, many journalists repeated the charges against the candidate – often citing polling data on how many Americans believe them – before noting that the beliefs were false. Particularly damaging is the common practice of replaying parts of an ad before debunking its content.

To find out what the other three lessons are, read the whole thing.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • KenW.


    Excellent summary of the dynamics operating, presented in an easily digested package.

    I am going to share the link in several forums.

    Kenneth Wildman
    Professor of Psychology, Emeritus
    Ohion Northern University
    Ada, Ohio

  • Seenos

    This is great stuff, but it assumes that journalists aren’t interested in spreading false beliefs.

    One man’s cautionary lesson is another man’s hot tip!

  • Independent

    Thanks for explaining the psychology behind the deceptive practices of a number of media outlets. Henceforth I’ll be more alert to attempts to manipulate source amnesia.

  • DCBob

    This brings to mind a recurring observation of mine – how difficult it is to imagine what I knew or believed at various points in the past. It’s not just that other countries are different, or that, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country. Even my own past experience is a foreign country that I find it difficult to comprehend.

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