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When communicating facts backfires: The risk of people holding on to their initial beliefs in false information when confronted with facts

With the increasing ease of access to information, people are at a higher risk of receiving and believing false information. This became even clearer during the Covid-19 pandemic. But checking and communicating facts does not always yield the results one hopes for. TRi Facts looked at how communicators can meet people where they are and share information in an efficient and impactful manner.

The Covid-19 pandemic made the risk of false information even clearer with a wide range of false claims about the illness, potential cures and several movements against vaccines, which even led to the term “anti-vaxxers''. False information “in health is currently an extremely serious problem, as they represent a disservice to the population,” according to Luisa Massarani¹. 

But checking and communicating facts does not always yield the results one hopes for. 

There is a need to fact-check potentially false information and debunk misleading beliefs. But people often hold onto their initial beliefs in the face of facts. According to Judie Beck² “there are facts, and there are beliefs, and there are things you want so badly to believe that they become facts to you.” Researchers have identified a range of processes why people are at risk of holding on to false beliefs, linked to cognitive processes as well as people’s identity and emotions as outlined below. 

Much more than just being a matter of sticking to our opinions, there are underlying cognitive processes that sometimes have us set in our ways.

Firstly, confirmation bias³, people’s tendency to accept information that confirms their views or prejudices while ignoring or rejecting contradicting information. This prevents them from seeing things objectively. Also called “myside bias” by Hugo Mercier and Daniel Sperber, it indicates that rationality is less often about making decisions based on logic but providing justifications for decisions one has already made. For example, rather than opening one’s mind to the possibility that vaccinations actually do work, a person might hound all the side-effects to highlight why vaccines “are bad” and further reinforce their stance against vaccination.

Secondly, selective exposure⁴, which describes that people are more likely to seek and engage with material that reinforces rather than opposes their beliefs. Media coverage, Artificial Intelligence and targeted communication are strengthening this effect as we are more likely to encounter content in line with our worldview. 

Thirdly, motivated reasoning⁵ explains how people remain convinced of what they already believe by filtering only for information that is in support of their beliefs. They seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs. People consider evidence that disagrees with them as weaker, because ultimately, they are asking themselves fundamentally different questions and are much more critical of contradicting evidence, according to Tom Gilovich, a psychologist.

The fourth process is known as Clear’s law of recurrence⁶. It explains how “the number of people who believe an idea is directly proportional to the number of times it has been repeated during the last year”. In this way, having conversations about false information or problematic beliefs can actually strengthen them because fact-checks or any communication about false ideas essentially repeats them. One example is any explanation that 5G networks do not cause the coronavirus. This shows how each time you attack a bad idea, you are at risk of feeding the monster you are trying to destroy. Because ideas, even bad ones, “...can only be remembered” and “can only be believed when they are repeated”, James Clear (2021)⁶.

Lastly, belief perseverance⁷, our tendency to provide reasons why we believe in something and hold onto these reasons even when we are presented with evidence that discredits the actual claim. Like if we hear about a local brand being accused of unethical treatment of their employees, we will try to find arguments or evidence why this could be true. And all these reasons are still in our minds and influence our perception of this brand even if it turns out that the information was incorrect. Consequently, people might hold on to the initial false perceptions they formed even if they are baseless. 

People also struggle to change their beliefs due to processes that are linked to their identity and how they perceive themselves.

When faced with a new set of facts, people often find it difficult to admit that they may have been wrong and become defensive. Oftentimes when we argue, we argue to win and not to learn⁸. According to Ozan Varol⁹, “once you’ve equated someone’s beliefs with idiocracy, changing that person’s mind will require nothing short of an admission that they are unintelligent. And that’s an admission that most minds aren’t willing to make.” 

People also use their responses to show support for the source or a specific worldview; a process called expressive responding¹⁰. People often use a false statement as a shortcut to express their agreement with a specific idea, commonly because they want to become a part of a bigger worldview or larger community. And this seems to be more relevant than whether they actually believe the false statement. One example is how wearing a mask during the pandemic seemed to become a political statement in the USA instead of being merely a preventative measure¹¹ against the virus. Some researchers¹² suggest that human beings develop reasoning to be able to survive in groups and people are unlikely to change their perspective if it will cost them their connectedness. This is also the reason why people are more likely to listen to people with similar opinions, according to James Clear¹³. 

Social and emotional processes are closely related and our emotions play a huge role in how we respond to things and can even trump facts¹⁴. Feelings tend to remain real to those experiencing them even when they don’t make sense to those witnessing them¹⁵. Closely related to our feelings, our biases also influence to which extent we are open to changing our beliefs. 

So how can our communication have an impact? We have to address the processes that regulate how people perceive information and meet them where they are.  

People’s thoughts and actions are regulated by specific core elements and processes and if we address these, we can reach people according to Sharot¹⁶ (2017). The factors below are particularly valuable to communicate facts more effectively and impactfully

Firstly, people’s prior beliefs play a major role in how people react to information. Packaging facts in a way that considers and possibly even speaks to these prior beliefs will make it easier for people to embrace new information. An example of this is how a community in New Orleans¹⁷ developed a communication campaign that encouraged people to get vaccinated so that they could continue to celebrate events such as Mardi Gras, which are important to people to express their culture and had been cancelled since the start of the pandemic.

Secondly, our emotions and our desire tend to prefer positive information over only gloom and doom. Research has shown that positively framing views is more powerful and effective as it requires less attention and energy to process compared to negative information, which can be perceived as draining. An example of this are campaigns against Covid-19 that could tell people how to keep themselves safe from the virus instead of repeating how dangerous the virus is to our lives and economies. 

Thirdly, incentives tie in with positive emotions and immediate positive rewards often work better compared to possible future threats. We could use this then for example in our messaging around false information. A headline could read, “By putting an end to the spread of false information you protect your loved ones” versus “If you don’t stop the spread of false information, you can end up endangering your loved ones.” 

Lastly, allowing the public to have a sense of agency in the information we present will be more valuable than having them feel like decisions are being made for them. One way to do this is to appeal to their curiosity and show them what they can still learn to expand their horizon. This will make them feel more motivated, open to new insights and in control of the options that are being presented to them. Sharot also mentions that our need to conform and our current state of mind affects how we receive information - you can read more about these processes here¹⁸.

In summary, it is possible for people to change their perspectives and factual information can help them - if communicated in an efficient and impactful manner. 

To achieve this, we have to begin by understanding the processes why people might hold onto their initial beliefs in false information. Then, we need to address the core processes and elements that regulate how people perceive information. And we need to remember to focus on gradual change¹⁹ as abrupt change will only result in them feeling overwhelmed and digging their heels in. 

Contact TRi Facts to help you understand your target audience and assist you to develop communication strategies and campaigns.