Monday, October 1, 2012

Why do some people cling to debunked conspiracy theories?

I am somewhat of a fan of the cultural phenomena commonly referred to as conspiracy theories.  Not that I subscribe to or believe in any of the ridiculous stories, its just that I am fascinated by how some people who otherwise seem mentally stable and intelligent can be so willfully ignorant and display an utter phobia for facts regarding certain topics.   It is said that you can never fully debunk a conspiracy theory because in the mind of the believers, evidence and facts that disprove the theory are examples of just how far the other side will go to conceal the truth.  The more damning the evidence seems, the deeper the conspiracy must go!

So I thought this was a great read.   A psychological study into why people refuse to accept facts and evidence that debunk their favorite conspiracy theories.  Now you will know why your crazy Uncle and your nutjob co-worker still hold on to conspiracy theories even after you hit them over the head with a cluebat again and again.  

Misinformation and Its Correction - Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing

"... We first examine the mechanisms by which such misinformation is disseminated in society, both inadvertently and purposely. Misinformation can originate from rumors but also from works of fiction, governments and politicians, and vested interests. Moreover, changes in the media landscape, including the arrival of the Internet, have fundamentally influenced the ways in which information is communicated and misinformation is spread.
We next move to misinformation at the level of the individual, and review the cognitive factors that often render misinformation resistant to correction. We consider how people assess the truth of statements and what makes people believe certain things but not others. We look at people’s memory for misinformation and answer the questions of why retractions of misinformation are so ineffective in memory updating and why efforts to retract misinformation can even backfire and, ironically, increase misbelief. Though ideology and personal worldviews can be major obstacles for debiasing, there nonetheless are a number of effective techniques for reducing the impact of misinformation, and we pay special attention to these factors that aid in debiasing.
We conclude by providing specific recommendations for the debunking of misinformation. These recommendations pertain to the ways in which corrections should be designed, structured, and applied in order to maximize their impact. Grounded in cognitive psychological theory, these recommendations may help practitioners—including journalists, health professionals, educators, and science communicators—design effective misinformation retractions, educational tools, and public-information campaigns.
Both the Left and the Right have their favorite pet conspiracy theories so this analysis applies to both sides even if the three examples they cited in the study are more likely to reside in the minds of wingnut conservatives.

I do not have much faith that any new methods for debunking conspiracies will be very effective.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.  Maybe these psychologists should study that peculiar behavior next.    

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