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Surprising Science

Sometimes Mythbusting Can Backfire in an Unexpected Way

Repeating myths in order to correct them can backfire, causing people to remember the myth as fact, and forgetting the fact altogether. Researchers suggest other ways for journalists to correct misinformation.

A misleading piece of information isahead: What if I told you that the flu vaccine can give you flu? This isn’t true, of course, and yet, 43 percent of the U.S. population believes it. Even though I’ve provided evidence to back up my statement to prove this piece of information is false, you may still walk away with the memory that the flu vaccine can give you the flu.

Correcting myths and misinformation is tricky, according to researchers working in the Department of Communication Studies and Media Research at LMU Munich, Germany. It has a lot to do with how we remember information, and we all know how fickle our memories can be.

An article trying to educate the public that “we don’t use just 10 percent of our brain,” may cause a backfire effect simply through repetition.

“Although myths and facts stories seem like an elegant way of communicating scientific information to the public, the results of the present study provide evidence for detrimental effects of correcting false information,” the researchers write.

It’s not to say that we shouldn’t work toward correcting myths, just that writing an article about the “Top 10 myths of 2015,” which highlights the myths rather than the facts might actually promote more misinformation.

“The study shows that after only a few minutes, people start to misremember originally false information as true, but only rarely misremember facts as false,” the researchers explain.

They recommend journalists, instead, highlight only the facts and not repeat the myths accompanying an issue at all. Also, journalists should encourage readers to form an attitude around the issue. The researchers believe this will help solidify the information by creating an emotional attachment to strengthen the memory.

“It’s the interaction between cognitive systems and emotion systems in the brain that create what’s called sometimes, flashbulb memories, which are very vivid, strong memories of a particular experience,” says Joseph LeDoux, a professor and a member of the Center for Neural Science and Department of Psychology at NYU.

The spread of misinformation has given rise to several unfortunate movements. But I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson when he says, “In a free society, you can and should think whatever you want. If you wanna think the world is flat, go right ahead.”

People are entitled to their beliefs and opinions, however wrong or objectionable they may be. “But if you think the world is flat and you have influence over others, then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth, and the security of our citizenry.”


Photo Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Staff

Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker


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