Why Myths Won't Die

A new study by political scientist Brendan Nyhan (Dartmouth College) and colleagues Jason Reifler (University of Exeter), Sean Richey (Georgia State University), and Gary L. Freed (University of Michigan/University of Melbourne), examines the relationship between factual misconceptions and issue attitudes--and more specifically what happens when people are exposed to messages designed to reduce misinformation.

The objective of their study was to test the effectiveness of messages aimed at reducing vaccine misperceptions and increasing vaccination rates for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).  They used a Web-based nationally-representative two-wave survey conducted with 1759 parents.  Respondents were randomly assigned to receive one of four interventions corresponding to four strategies commonly used by public health agencies to promote vaccination: (1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the CDC; (2) textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement; (3) images of children with diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; (4) a dramatic narrative about a baby who almost died from measles from a CDC fact sheet; or to a control group.

Their findings were surprising.  While being exposed to corrective information (intervention 1) successfully reduced respondents' misperceptions that vaccines cause autism, it also resulted in a decrease in intent to vaccinate among parents with the least favorable attitudes toward vaccines.  Interventions 3 and 4 increased expressed belief in a vaccine/autism link and belief in serious vaccine side effects, respectively.  In other words, the message appears to have backfired.

The authors conclude that "corrections of misperceptions about controversial issues like vaccines may be counter-productive in some populations. The best response to false beliefs is not necessarily correct information. Likewise, trying to scare parents with emotive stories could paradoxically increase vaccine safety concerns among those who are already hesitant to immunize. [...] These results suggest the need to carefully test vaccination messaging before making it public."

Vaccination is not the only example of this phenomenon.  In previous studies, Nyhan has examined why it is so difficult to debunk conspiracy theories (about 9/11, for instance) and political myths, like President Obama's birthplace, or misperceptions of the Clinton health care plan and Obama's Affordable Care Act (and the so-called "death panels").  His findings demonstrate that combating myths is tricky and may actually make the problem worse: "Perhaps not surprisingly, those who were predisposed to view Governor Palin unfavorably were influenced by the corrective article to reduce their belief in death panels and their opposition to the ACA. Those who viewed Governor Palin positively, but had low "political knowledge," were similarly swayed.  But those who were both supportive of Governor Palin in general and who were "politically knowledgeable" were pushed in the opposite direction. An article that attempted to point out the inaccuracies in Governor Palin’s assertions about "death panels" made these people more likely to believe they were real and hardened their support against the law."

Read more:

TeachingwithData.org resources:
Issue Evolution: A Data-Driven Learning Guide (http://www.teachingwithdata.org/resource/3452)
Frederique Laubepin

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