You Can’t Handle the Truth

From WNYC’s On the Media, in an interview by hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield with the Washington Post‘s Shankar Vedantam about recent phychological studies on how the brain processes true and false statements (emphasis added):

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I want to ask you, then, about truth-squadding, since we’re in the midst of political races. Here’s the scenario: politician A makes horrendous charges against politician B, essentially lying about the opposition. A vigilant reporter notices this and does a truth-squadding article in the newspaper that says, no, this campaign ad is simply not true for the following reason. And politician B, of course, immediately starts attacking politician A for misrepresenting his or her record. Who wins?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: I think invariably it’s going to be politician A. When you have people who are systematically trying to manipulate you, spread propaganda, for instance, and they repeat the same information over and over again, the fact that we are not very good at remembering where we heard a particular piece of information, we tend to believe that we have heard the information from multiple independent sources and therefore it must be true, rather than from the same untrustworthy source over and over again.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, the studies you’re talking about suggest that these effects take place irrespective of the bias of the listener. But there’s another study that suggests that if you are, in fact, predisposed to have a certain world view that misinformation sticks still more. Can you describe it?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: There’s a new study that’s just been completed by Jason Reifler at Georgia State University where he actually looks at questions such as why it is that large numbers of people continue to believe that weapons of mass destruction were present in Iraq before the invasion or even found in Iraq after the invasion.

And what Jason and his colleagues did was try and give people the correct information. And what he found, ironically, is that partisans who wanted to believe that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, when told about the correct information, ended up believing ever more fervently that they were right and that the correct information was wrong.