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Myths, Urban Legends, & Misinformation

In the September 4 Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam reported on cognitive research into how and why people believe in false information, such as the fairly common belief that the side effects of a flu shot are worse than the flu itself.

"Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner," Vedantam writes, "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."

These cognitive "rules of thumb" are apparantly quite powerful. Once misinformation is effectively disseminated, it's really difficult to reverse the effect with true information, partly because the rebuttal of a myth requires the repetition of the myth, which in turn reinforces it. "In politics and elsewhere," Vedantam adds, "this means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later."

This research is hugely important to the study of media effects. We know now how powerful radio and television have been and continue to be in our perception of the world, political or otherwise. The Web dwarfs both, combined, in its ability to spread truths and falsehoods—and thus asserts its control over us through its context and content.

1 comment:

The.Effing.Librarian said...

I have very few beliefs. As things happened in my life based on beliefs (right or wrong ones), I made an effort to remove them so I wouldn't react without thinking, except for the few beliefs which I kept like ink in my skin, under my clothes that I see every day but others do not. Most other things are only a form of amusement.