Sticky Stories

With political “discussions” frequently coming to an impasse in many democratic chambers and with the US warming up for a year of electioneering, it is important to listen carefully to the arguments put forward. The spin-doctors are often being outshone by the fictions that have become firmly fixed in the minds of most of us.

How is it that we become attached to these fictions even after we have seen/read evidence to the contrary? Green and Donahue of U of North Carolina set out to look at this in some detail (1).  They started from the knowledge that a journalist who writes a story that is later proved to be untrue suffers damage to their reputation, but do the untruths hang on once they have had life breathed into them?

A group of 160 lab rats were fed a story and some were told at the outset that it was fictional, some others were told after they had read it that there had been an unintentional error, while some others were told that they were intentionally deceived. In all cases they were unhappy with the author and endeavored to correct the untruths by marking up the text.

This sounds good, but they weren’t very good at getting rid of the inaccuracies. The fact that they had gained a low opinion of the author didn’t mean that they rejected the whole thing. The “mud sticks” attitude appears to be live and well.

Once an idea has been planted, it will keep growing it seems, even when we know it to be incorrect. Perhaps it is the doubt that was cast that survives in the face of the real facts. It would be interesting to find out at which stage of the informing process that the attitudes become fixed.

I wonder that if the error were immediately pointed out so we won’t have processed the information and made it our own, the attitude wouldn’t have had time to become established.  Perhaps, the longer that it has been lurking round our neurons, the more difficult it is clean out completely.

We will all need to work on or skepticism and not let our guard down.

  1. M.C.Green and J.K.Donahue, Media Psychology, 14, 312, (2011).

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