Do People Keep Believing Because They Want to? Preexisting Attitudes and the Continued Influence of Misinformation

By Ecker, Ullrich K. H.; Lewandowsky, Stephan et al. | Memory & Cognition, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Do People Keep Believing Because They Want to? Preexisting Attitudes and the Continued Influence of Misinformation


Ecker, Ullrich K. H., Lewandowsky, Stephan, Fenton, Olivia, Martin, Kelsey, Memory & Cognition


Published online: 5 September 2013

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Misinformation-defined as information that is initially assumed to be valid but is later corrected or retracted-often has an ongoing effect on people's memory and reasoning. We tested the hypotheses that (a) reliance on misinformation is affected by people's preexisting attitudes and (b) attitudes determine the effectiveness of retractions. In two experiments, participants scoring higher and lower on a racial prejudice scale read a news report regarding a robbery. In one scenario, the suspects were initially presented as being Australian Aboriginals, whereas in a second scenario, a hero preventing the robbery was introduced as an Aboriginal person. Later, these critical, race-related pieces of information were or were not retracted. We measured participants' reliance on misinformation in response to inferential reasoning questions. The results showed that preexisting attitudes influence people's use of attitude-related information but not the way in which a retraction of that information is processed.

Keywords Misinformation . Continued influence effect . Attitudes . Beliefs . Motivated reasoning

Misinformation-defined as information that is initially believed to be valid but is subsequently retracted or corrected1- has an ongoing impact on people's memory and inferential reasoning, even after unambiguous and clear retractions. For example, when people make inferences regarding the causal chain leading up to an event (e.g., the circumstances of a fire), misinformation (e.g., an initial suspicion of arson that is later corrected) is often relied upon, even when people accurately remember its retraction (Ecker, Lewandowsky, & Apai, 2011; Ecker, Lewandowsky, Swire, & Chang, 2011; Ecker, Lewandowsky, & Tang, 2010; H. M. Johnson & Seifert, 1994; Lewandowsky, Ecker, Seifert, Schwarz, & Cook, 2012; Wilkes & Leatherbarrow, 1988).

In studies on this topic, participants typically read a news report about a fictional event, in which a piece of causal information is first given and then retracted for one group of participants. Participants are subsequently given a questionnaire asking them to make inferences about the event in response to indirect questions (e.g., in the present example, regarding the cause of the fire or the response from authorities). References to the initial piece of misinformation are then tallied and compared to those of another group that did not receive a retraction. The typical result is that a retraction at most halves the number of references to a piece of misinformation, but that it does not eliminate the misinformation's influence altogether (cf. Lewandowsky et al., 2012,forareview).

Previous research has offered some suggestions why this continued-influence effect of misinformation (H. M. Johnson & Seifert, 1994) arises. Most of these theoretical accounts refer to failures of strategic memory processing. They argue that retracted or outdated information remains available in memory, despite retractions or attempts to update memory (cf. Ayers & Reder, 1998; Bjork & Bjork, 1996; Ecker, Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Chee, 2010; Kendeou & O'Brien, in press;Oberauer& Vockenberg, 2009). If this retracted but available information is automatically activated, it might be accepted as valid at face value; in particular, when its processing appears fluent, people might use a heuristic that fluency implies veracity (cf. Ecker, Swire, & Lewandowsky, in press; M. K. Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993; Lewandowsky et al., 2012; Schwarz, Sanna, Skurnik, & Yoon, 2007). Hence, any automatic activation of outdated or invalidated information will require some strategic memory processing to counteract the potential impact of the automatically retrieved but invalid information. This strategic memory processing could involve the recollection of contextual details such as the source of the information or the details of the correction, or it could rely on a strategic monitoring process that determines the validity of an automatically retrieved piece of information (cf. …

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