Sharon Begley reports for the Wall Street Journal about a new study of memory. The study apparently demonstrates that information that conforms to ideology tends to stick even after that information is proven false. The study is to be published in soon in Psychological Science:
“People build mental models,” explains Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychology professor at the University of Western Australia, Crawley…”By the time they receive a retraction, the original misinformation has already become an integral part of that mental model, or world view, and disregarding it would leave the world view a shambles.” Therefore, he and his colleagues conclude in their paper, “People continue to rely on misinformation even if they demonstrably remember and understand a subsequent retraction.”
I’ve read similar conclusions about the role of ideology in studies of schema theory, although some of these scholars assert that we can and do change our schemas as we gain new information. This would also suggest that ideology is open to change.
Do we require certain environmental conditions to obtain for us to make such use of new information or corrected information? For example, would the experiment upon which this study was based have turned out differently in a less contentious environment? Would the experiment have turned out differently if subjects had been presented with a less contentious (and pathetic) issue? In other words, would we be more likely to accept the corrected information if we felt safe in doing so?
Toward the end, Begley says something I find particularly interesting:
The news media would do well to keep in mind that once we report something, some people will always believe it even if we try to stuff the genie back in the bottle.
Here we see a problem not only with reporting about scientific studies but also the problem with the old journalism-as-lecture rhetoric. What Begley asserts applies equally to journalists–in as much as they are people, too. The danger here for journalists isn’t that readers will fail to correct their own thinking. That comes second. The danger here is that journalists will fail to correct their own thinking! (Now go back and reconsider those questions I asked above.)
We could begin listing here the numerous silly things that reporters write (not even talking columnists here)–especially about politicians and politics–that have long been proven false or misleading. And it appears that no amount of correcting does any good at all. They just keep typing.