The Washington Post has a timely article about the psychology of believing news reports, even when they’ve been retracted – suggesting that if false information is presented early, it is more likely to be believed, while subsequent attempts to correct the information may, in fact, strengthen the false impression.
The article starts with results from a study [pdf] by psychologist Norbert Schwarz who looked at the effect of a government flier that attempted to correct myths about the flu vaccine by marking them ‘true’ or ‘false’.
Unfortunately, the flier actually boosted people’s belief in the false information, probably because we tend to think information is more likely to be true the more we hear it.
Negating a statement seems just to emphasise the initial point. The additional correction seems to get lost amid the noise.
One particularly pertinent study [pdf] not mentioned in the article, looked at the effect of retractions of false news reports made during the 2003 Iraq War on American, German and Australian participants.
For example, claims that Iraqi forces executed coalition prisoners of war after they surrendered were retracted the day after the claims were made.
The study found that the American participants’ belief in the truth of an initial news report was not affected by knowledge of its subsequent retraction.
In contrast, knowing about a retraction was likely to significantly reduce belief in the initial report for Germans and Australians.
The researchers note that people are more likely to discount information if they are suspicious of the motives behind its dissemination.
The Americans rated themselves as more likely to agree with the official line that the war was to ‘destroy weapons of mass destruction’, whereas the Australian and German participants rated this as far less convincing.
This suggests that there may have been an element of ‘motivated reasoning’ in evaluating news reports.
Research has shown that this only occurs when there’s sufficient information available to create a justification for the decision, even when the information is irrelevant to the main issue.
There’s a wonderful example of this explained here, in relation to men’s judgements about the safety of sex with HIV+ women of varying degrees of attractiveness.
So, if you want your propaganda to be effective get it in early, repeat it, give people reasons to be believe it (however irrelevant), and make yourself seem trustworthy.
As I’m sure these principles are already widely known among government and commercial PR departments, bear them in mind when evaluating public information.