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Thread: Persistence of Myths

  1. #1

    Persistence of Myths

    Abstracted from yesterday's Washington Post:
    The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine." When a social psychologist had volunteers read the flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual. Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC itself.

    The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

    This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.

    Similarly, many in the Arab world are convinced that the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was not the work of Arab terrorists but was a controlled demolition; that 4,000 Jews working there had been warned to stay home that day; and that the Pentagon was struck by a missile rather than a plane. A report last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that the number of Muslims worldwide who do not believe that Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks is soaring -- to 65 percent of Indonesians, 59 percent of Turks and Egyptians, 53 percent of Jordanians, 41 percent of Pakistanis; and even 56 percent of British Muslims.

    Research on the difficulty of debunking myths has not been specifically tested on beliefs about Sept. 11 conspiracies or the Iraq war. But because the experiments illuminate basic properties of the human mind, psychologists such as Schwarz say the same phenomenon is probably implicated in the spread and persistence of a variety of political and social myths.

    The research does not absolve those who are responsible for promoting myths in the first place. What the psychological studies highlight, however, is the potential paradox in trying to fight bad information with good information. The research is painting a broad new understanding of how the mind works. Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, the studies show that the brain uses subconscious "rules of thumb" that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency.

    The experiments also highlight the difference between asking people whether they still believe a falsehood immediately after giving them the correct information, and asking them a few days later. Long-term memories matter most in public health campaigns or political ones, and they are the most susceptible to the bias of thinking that well-recalled false information is true. The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

    Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true. Many easily remembered things, in fact, such as one's birthday or a pet's name, are indeed true. But someone trying to manipulate public opinion can take advantage of this aspect of brain functioning. In politics and elsewhere, this means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later.

    Furthermore, a new experiment by Kimberlee Weaver at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and others shows that hearing the same thing over and over again from one source can have the same effect as hearing that thing from many different people -- the brain gets tricked into thinking it has heard a piece of information from multiple, independent sources, even when it has not.

    The experiments by Weaver, Schwarz and others illustrate another basic property of the mind -- it is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something. People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true, said Schwarz.

    Experiments by Ruth Mayo, a cognitive social psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also found that for a substantial chunk of people, the "negation tag" of a denial falls off with time. "If someone says, 'I did not harass her,' I associate the idea of harassment with this person," said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. "Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person's name again. "If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind," she added. "Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11."

    Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. Rather than say, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently did during a marathon congressional debate, that "Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States; Osama bin Laden did," Mayo said it would be better to say something like, "Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks" -- and not mention Hussein at all. The psychologist acknowledged that such a statement might not be entirely accurate -- issuing a denial or keeping silent are sometimes the only real options.

    So is silence the best way to deal with myths? Unfortunately, the answer to that question also seems to be no. Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California. He published his study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Myth-busters, in other words, have the odds against them.

  2. #2
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fraggle Rocker View Post
    There's an old saying, Fraggle, that goes something to the effect of "it's far easier to learn than to unlearn." This bit of research underscores what many have known for a very long time. And it goes a long way toward explaining WHY it works that way.

    Good find.

  3. #3
    uniquely dreadful S.A.M.'s Avatar
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    Its the basis of a psychological trick employed by the media, called framing

    http://www.sciforums.com/showthread....75#post1440475

  4. #4
    It honestly sounds like BS (the study) first we have to demonstrate that people are going to answer these questions honestly. That is asking for alot, THEN we have to demonstrate that the people writing this were entirely honest or at the very least did not fit things to match what they were looking for.

    Just because someone says something does not mean they actually believe it but merely want you to think that they do.

    People are crafty.

  5. #5
    Humans are ONE
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    The Washington post has it all wrong, as usual. Flu shots do cause worse symptoms than flu. The government puts them out to turn us into woozy, compliable sheep. The world trade centre was blown up by the C.I.A. The reason these 'myths' are so persistent is that they're true, and humans instinctively know the truth.

    Like astrology. No matter how many scientists say it's wrong, people know it's true because it feels true. And the fact that God made humans. Do you feel like an ape? I don't.

    The truth will always come out in the end. As they say, "in vino veritas".

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fraggle Rocker View Post
    It's not that simple Fraggle Rocker.

    Tonsils were regularly removed and there were 'myths' about this being problematic in alternative circles.

    Fluoride has had many 'myths' around it but many European nations will not use it on then advice of their scientists.

    Mercury loaded amalgam will eventually be shelved forever. Those who felt there was a problem with mercury were laughed at and ridiculed and labeled 'myth' believers. The tide is turning on that one, faster in Europe.

    You cannot simply believe the majority of scientists and avoid believing in myths. There are plenty of factors involved in how a majority becomes a majority, who gets access to the media and who has the power and money to marginalize and mythologize. It may seem fun to mock certain kinds of skeptics but everyone should come at this issue with humility.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by John99 View Post
    It honestly sounds like BS (the study) first we have to demonstrate that people are going to answer these questions honestly. That is asking for alot, THEN we have to demonstrate that the people writing this were entirely honest or at the very least did not fit things to match what they were looking for.
    I deliberately left in the paragraph about this research having been confirmed by other peer-reviewed studies. This is science at work, dude. Welcome to SCI Forums.
    Quote Originally Posted by Zephyr View Post
    The Washington post has it all wrong, as usual. Flu shots do cause worse symptoms than flu. The government puts them out to turn us into woozy, compliable sheep.
    Zeph, this is a science website. The scientific method is to be respected at all times. Please provide your source for this assertion. Every vaccine carries a small risk, that is not disputed. But public health policies are guided by the principles of risk analysis and management. The miniscule number of people who are made seriously ill by flu shots is a reasonable cost to pay for the benefit of the enormous number of people who are spared from illnes. If you have scientific information that contradicts this--not your opinion, not what your preacher told you, not somebody who got sick after getting a flu shot and blamed it on the flu without a proper test--then please provide it.
    The world trade centre was blown up by the C.I.A.
    This is trolling and it's a violation of the rules. You've received an infraction for it. One of the principles of the scientific method is that extraordinary assertions require extraordinary substantiation before anyone is obligated to take them seriously. I live in Washington DC and I know people who saw the airliner hit the Pentagon. There were plenty of witnesses to the WTC attacks as well. I take it as a personal insult to my people and my country when a troll saunters in here and starts spouting trash about our national tragedy. I am sorry that our Religious Redneck Retard president used it to political advantage and started a Holy War over it, and I am one of tens of millions of Americans working to replace him with someone less religious, less redneck, and less retarded. Nonetheless 9/11 was perpetrated by Muslim Arabs, the majority of whom were/are Saudis, and as far as can be determined absolutely none of whom were Iraqi.
    The reason these 'myths' are so persistent is that they're true, and humans instinctively know the truth. Like astrology. No matter how many scientists say it's wrong, people know it's true because it feels true.
    What people "instinctively know" are called "archetypes." They are indeed instincts that come from our midbrains, the result of evolution. Some of them were survival traits that made it difficult for humans who didn't have them to propagate their genes, others were the random results of genetic bottlenecks. Mythologies, legends and religions are archetypes, things people seem to "know" without having observed or learned them. Of course it "feels" true. That's how instincts work. Feeling true is not the same as being true. Some instincts are just out of date, like the feeling of fright when we see a lion charging at us on the TV screen. Others are just plain wrong, like the legend of the great civilization lost under the sea.
    And the fact that God made humans. Do you feel like an ape? I don't.
    Perhaps you've never spent any time observing our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas. One thing is for certain: Humans who live by their instincts are more similar to the other apes than those who don't. One of the things that elevates us above the rest of the animal kingdom is science.

    This is not the place to defend the evolution denialist crackpots. There is a Sticky for that under Biology and Genetics. You may also post under Pseudoscience or under Religion. The scientific method must be respected at all times everywhere else in SciForums. If you wish to intelligently dispute the validity of the scientific method you may do so under GS&T or under Philosophy, but you will need far better debating skills than you have shown us so far. Unfortunately I can only give you one infraction per post. But if you continue to troll the science boards with antiscientific religious material, you will be banned.

    And before you dash off your response to this, repeat to yourself until you remember: Extraordinary assertions require extraordinary substantiation.
    Quote Originally Posted by Grantywanty View Post
    It's not that simple Fraggle Rocker. Tonsils were regularly removed and there were 'myths' about this being problematic in alternative circles. Fluoride has had many 'myths' around it but many European nations will not use it on then advice of their scientists. Mercury loaded amalgam will eventually be shelved forever. Those who felt there was a problem with mercury were laughed at and ridiculed and labeled 'myth' believers. The tide is turning on that one, faster in Europe.You cannot simply believe the majority of scientists and avoid believing in myths. There are plenty of factors involved in how a majority becomes a majority, who gets access to the media and who has the power and money to marginalize and mythologize. It may seem fun to mock certain kinds of skeptics but everyone should come at this issue with humility.
    This article was not about mocking skeptics. And since it came from the Washington Post, America's premiere Leftist newspaper, of course it would have contained examples that offend rightists. I'm aware of the controversy over fluoridation, but it's still a matter of risk analysis and management, of costs versus benefits, something the average American is abysmally poor at. I have talked to enough dentists to have an order-of-magnitude idea of the benefits of fluoridation. I have yet to see any proper figures on the risk.

    Nonetheless the point of the article was to explain the mechanism by which urban myths are propagated, not to evaluate them. The scientific method ultimately found the truth about tonsils and mercury. The problem that faces us now is how to get the truth to replace the myths. Science is helping us with that too.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Zephyr View Post
    The reason these 'myths' are so persistent is that they're true, and humans instinctively know the truth.

  9. #9
    I think Zephyr was being funny. All a joke....right?

    At any rate this is the underlying psychology of propaganda and why it is still an essential tool for nearly all government.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fraggle Rocker View Post
    This article was not about mocking skeptics. And since it came from the Washington Post, America's premiere Leftist newspaper, of course it would have contained examples that offend rightists. I'm aware of the controversy over fluoridation, but it's still a matter of risk analysis and management, of costs versus benefits, something the average American is abysmally poor at. I have talked to enough dentists to have an order-of-magnitude idea of the benefits of fluoridation. I have yet to see any proper figures on the risk.

    Nonetheless the point of the article was to explain the mechanism by which urban myths are propagated, not to evaluate them. The scientific method ultimately found the truth about tonsils and mercury. The problem that faces us now is how to get the truth to replace the myths. Science is helping us with that too.
    Let's take the issue of extraordinary claims requite extrordinary proof issue you took up with the other poster and think of it in terms of mercury. Mercury was a known poison - mad as hatter - a long time ago. PUtting it in mouths should have had extraordinary proof, long term studies in animals perhaps. Yet somehow the onus of proof became to prove there was a problem putting the poison in the mouth. The scientific method of course, as I know you know and would have worded it differently I am sure in other posts, did not ultimately find the truth but individual scientists after years and years of pressure from alternative practioners and patients who were convinced, often not via the scientific method but rather through experience and intuition, that there was something wrong with it. I raised the issue because their complaints were treated as myths despite mercury being a poison. I think this kind of reversal is much more common that most people realize. Perhaps you were one of the people who had serious doubts about Colin Powell's 'presentation' and all the early arguments for the war. Good on you then. But many other people with solid educations, even quite far out on the left, bought it. And angrily responded to skeptics as if they were making myths. Colin Powell is for affirmative action, after all, and is liberal socially.

    I think it is early to decide about the flu vaccines. That's what my intuition tells me. I think the context - a world in which the scientific community often is tightly enmeshed with industry - leaves my gut feeling that I should avoid the vaccine one I will follow. I do not trust the way information flows in this society and only more so since the sitting president made sure that the bulk of government oversight of industry is castrated.

    I am not anti-science. Quite the contrary. I do not see it is the only way to gain knowledge but it is a very good one. I do wonder how much public health information is actually designed and edited for reasons that have nothing to do with public health. I remember the scientific nutrition training I received as a child in school. What a joke.

  11. #11
    uniquely dreadful S.A.M.'s Avatar
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    Fraggle:

    I think Zephyr forgot his tags.

    From his posting history, it is safe to say he was joking. Hence the " in vino veritas"
    Last edited by S.A.M.; 09-06-07 at 09:45 AM.

  12. #12
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    It's my fault; I was being an ass. He said he didn't buy sarcasm. I thought he must've been sarcastic when he said that, but now I know better.



    But at least I'll have a pretty red mark next to that post for a couple of weeks

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by Zephyr View Post
    It's my fault; I was being an ass. He said he didn't buy sarcasm. I thought he must've been sarcastic when he said that, but now I know better. But at least I'll have a pretty red mark next to that post for a couple of weeks.
    My apologies, I reversed the infraction. It's not fair to ding somebody over my own misunderstanding. But let that be a lesson. Sarcasm does not come across very well in writing! I'm hardly the only person who is sarcasm-impaired. I'm a native speaker of English. Imagine how stuff like that might look to one of our foreign guests!

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