Making the truth stick & the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology


Erroneous beliefs are difficult to correct. Worse, popular correction strategies, such as the myth-versus-fact article format, may backfire because they subtly reinforce the myths through repetition and further increase the spread and acceptance of misinformation. Here we identify five key criteria people employ as they evaluate the truth of a statement: They assess general acceptance by others, gauge the amount of supporting evidence, determine its compatibility with their beliefs, assess the general coherence of the statement, and judge the credibility of the source of the information. In assessing these five criteria, people can actively seek additional information (an effortful analytic strategy) or attend to the subjective experience of easy mental processing—what psychologists call fluent processing—and simply draw conclusions on the basis of what feels right (a less effortful intuitive strategy). Throughout this truth-evaluation effort, fluent processing can facilitate acceptance of the statement: When thoughts flow smoothly, people nod along. Unfortunately, many correction strategies inadvertently make the false information more easily acceptable by, for example, repeating it or illustrating it with anecdotes and pictures. This, ironically, increases the likelihood that the false information the communicator wanted to debunk will be believed later. A more promising correction strategy is to focus on making the true information as easy to process as possible. We review recent research and offer recommendations for more effective presentation and correction strategies.