When the U.S. announced that they had killed bin Laden, he was claimed to have been firing at the troops from behind his wife. To the disappointment of filmmakers everywhere, however, they retracted these decorative claims later in the week. I’d assumed it was misinformation and, frankly, was more surprised by the retraction than the claim. New research by Australian psychologists, however, has concluded that propaganda remains effective if it’s been debunked. The original idea is lodged inside one’s consciousness, and bloody hard to shift…
The effect of misinformation on memory and reasoning cannot be completely eliminated, even after it has been corrected numerous times, say Australian psychologists.
Assistant Professor Ullrich Ecker and colleagues from The University of Western Australia outline their findings in a recent article published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review .
Ecker says this effect, known as ‘continued influence effect of misinformation’, occurs even if the retraction itself is understood, believed, and remembered.
Here’s another nice example. (Well, convenient example – it’s also nauseating.) In 2001, after the anthrax letters had been mailed across the States, U.S. officials and journalists planted the idea that Iraq presented likely suspects. By 2003 poor Steven Hatfill was being stitched up for the crime but the notion of Iraqi guilt was still clunking around people’s craniums. For some, it was the inspiration behind their support for war.
This quirk of the human mind seems to ensure that – in some cases, anyway – propagandists needn’t build substantial cases. They can just throw out a claim and see it latch onto perceptions like burdock in dog hair.
Well, as long as this research is accurate, anyway. (If it’s not we may go on believing it regardless.)