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How to Dispel False Beliefs

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Research sheds light into how we decide what’s accurate.

When I was growing up, I was told not to go into the pool if I’d just had lunch. I had to wait until I’d “digested”—usually about a half an hour or so—before being released back into the shimmering embrace of the camp’s pool. I’ve absorbed this so much as medically accurate that it’s hard for me to let my own kids back in the water after eating, even though I now know the advice is scientifically unfounded. (Snopes.com assures us that there’s never been a drowning associated with eating, then swimming. The site reports, “Ordinary levels of swimming or just general horsing around in the water need not be eschewed, even if a whole turkey has just been consumed.”) How did this type of misinformation form in my mind?  

According to new research from Princeton University, listening to a speaker repeat a belief does raise the believability of a statement, particularly if the listener is already prone to believing in it already. But, for those who are on the fence about the idea, hearing the correct info can override that.

In a study published in Cognition, 24 statements were given to participants. They contained eight myths and 16 facts, in four categories, including nutrition, vision, allergies, and overall health. The participants were told to read the statements carefully and that they were “frequently encountered on the Internet.” Then they ranked each statement as to how true it was, on a scale of one to seven. Afterward, they listened to someone speaking some, but not all, of the facts and myths, naturally, as if they were personally recalling the information.

The researchers discovered that if a belief had been mentioned by someone in the audio, it was more likely to be considered a fact.

In this study, the researchers at Princeton were looking at the results of the study particularly from the angle of community health and policy making. “In today’s informational environment, where inaccurate information and beliefs are widespread, policymakers would be well served by learning strategies to prevent the entrenchment of these beliefs at a population level,” wrote the study’s co-author, Alin Coman. Coman is an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Department of Psychology. For those of us not involved in public health, however, it’s an interesting insight into how we may be swayed by what we read and here, and a good reminder to double check “information” before we make up our minds on an issue.  


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Savannah. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!.


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