Published on October 18th, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan4
If You’re Going to Debunk a Myth, Don’t Reinforce It!
Reading or hearing a complete lie or piece of very harmful misinformation can be extremely frustrating. When you see this lie or myth repeated and repeated and repeated, it can bring you to a breaking point. If channeled correctly, that breaking point is a full-scale debunking of the myth. But if you’re going to debunk a myth, the last thing you want to do is reinforce that myth — unfortunately, that’s what the vast majority of mythbusters seem to do!
What I’m writing here is not just a thought from my own head, though — it’s based on careful psychological research. Here’s an example of this “familiarity backfire effect” from one study:
“To test for this backfire effect, people were shown a flyer that debunked common myths about flu vaccines.1 Afterwards, they were asked to separate the myths from the facts. When asked immediately after reading the flyer, people successfully identified the myths. However, when queried 30 minutes after reading the flyer, some people actually scored worse after reading the flyer. The debunking reinforced the myths.”
And just give it a little thought — if you hear or read a myth repeatedly, but any explanations debunking the myth don’t fully sink in, down the road you might just recognize the statement/myth (that you had come across is it before) and assume it must therefore be true.
Going on, John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky write:
“The driving force is the fact that familiarity increases the chances of accepting information as true. Immediately after reading the flyer, people remembered the details that debunked the myth and successfully identified the myths. As time passed, however, the memory of the details faded and all people remembered was the myth without the “tag” that identified it as false. This effect is particularly strong in older adults because their memories are more vulnerable to forgetting of details.”
Check Out the Debunking Handbook!
This is actually just one of several common mistakes commonly made by “mythbusters.” To my great frustration or disappointment, I see people making this mistake almost every day when debunking very harmful myths. So, I’m (re)sharing this point with you all (in case you do a bit of mythbusting in your spare time), and pointing you again to this great and free Debunking Handbook created by the folks over at Skeptical Science. Please, read it, read it carefully, and follow its advice!
Mythbusting without Stimulating the Familiarity Backfire Effect
Since the focus of this post was the familiarity backfire effect, I should probably share how to avoid this mistake. Here’s the conclusion from John and Stephan:
“How does one avoid causing the Familiarity Backfire Effect? Ideally, avoid mentioning the myth altogether while correcting it. When seeking to counter misinformation, the best approach is to focus on the facts you wish to communicate.”
“Not mentioning the myth is sometimes not a practical option. In this case, the emphasis of the debunking should be on the facts. The often-seen technique of headlining your debunking with the myth in big, bold letters is the last thing you want to do. Instead, communicate your core fact in the headline. Your debunking should begin with emphasis on the facts, not the myth. Your goal is to increase people’s familiarity with the facts.”