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Dr. Colleen Seifert, University of Michigan – Dislodging Misinformation

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Colleen Seifert of the University of Michigan explains why it’s sometimes hard to abandon an idea even when you know it to be false.

Colleen Seifert is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. Her research examines cognitive modeling (computer models of human thought), knowledge representation, memory retrieval, and judgment and decision-making.

About Dr. Seifert

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Dr. Colleen Seifert – Dislodging Misinformation

Have you ever heard a story so “good,” it has to be true? Imagine you’re a big beer drinker, and you hear a new report that beer has been found to be good for your heart. Then, follow-up reports clarify that this study was in error. How will you feel when you next open a bottle?

One of the surprising things about human memory is that keeping track of the truth is hard work. You have to remember what you originally heard, what the correction was, and whether you used that information in the meantime. In studies of memory, we find that people can show a continued influence of misinformation even when they remember that it is not true.

For example, we gave people a news report of a paper warehouse fire. The cause of the fire was “paint cans and gas cylinders” in a storage area. Then, we corrected it by saying the paint cans and gas cylinders were never on the premises. People accurately recalled the correction. But when asked what might have caused explosions, they suggested, “paint cans and gas cylinders.”

Why would people use information they can recall is untrue? In some cases, people feel it “should be true” because it provides a good explanation for the cause of the fire. Without it, there is a gap left in the story. We found that filling the gap with another cause, such as arson materials, helped people stop relying on the incorrect information.

People naturally want to know “why,” so much so that they will continue using information even while believing it is not true.  So, to help correct mistaken information, try to provide an alternative cause. That may help people tie the information together in a nice package in memory, and may make them less likely to reach for that beer.

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