Tomorrow is supposed to be the hottest day of the year here in the Midwest! Oh wait, I was mistaken, it’s is supposed to be hot, but it won’t be the hottest day of the year. Do I have you thinking about the record-breaking heat we’ve had recently now? Research has shown that when we are given misinformation, even after it is corrected, our brains still remember and want to hold onto the original information. We can be told to forget the original information, or asked to ignore it, but we still remember it.
In a recent Scientific American article titled “Lingering Lies: The persistent Influence of Misinformation,” Valerie Ross describes a research study released by the University of Western Australia regarding this topic. Each group of students was given misinformation, that was later corrected. One group was warned about the influence misinformation could have, and asked to please be very careful when recalling information later about what actually happened in a vignette they were presented with. The other group was not given this same warning. The group without the warning was more likely to use information originally given, despite it being corrected by the researchers, when asked to recall the story later on; while the group who did receive the warning were more likely to correctly recall the story.
We can see the implications of this in everyday life. How many times has the news reported a story, that later had to be corrected. When neighbors were discussing the story, did they still talk about it using the original information? A previous professor once told me that in regards to research, if a research study produces findings that end up being incorrect, it takes up to seven research studies showing the original study was indeed false before it will be accepted as general knowledge among the research community.
Another study by Ullrich, Lewandowsky, and Wang (2010) examined this misinformation effect in a similar fashion. Although, they found that even when you warn participants about the effect misinformation can have on memory, it still will not completely mitigate the effects of this phenomenon on their memory. Now imagine the effect this has in a court room… Say we witnessed a crime, and several months later are called to testify as a witness. You’re giving the information as best as you can remember it; but, towards the end of the story you realized you recalled a very important detail of the scene incorrectly… you just happened to state it wrong. This detail, which could have been from the color of the criminal’s hair, to the time you thought it happened… changes whether or not someone goes to jail. You correct what you have said, but will the jury remember, or take this correction into account when they determine if the person is innocent or guilty?
Other studies have found that by using just leading information, we will recall information incorrectly as well. If we witness a car accident, and we are asked, “how long had the light been red when they ran the light,” versus “was the light red when they went through the intersection” is worded just enough to change how we will respond. Your brain assumes the light was red, and they must have this information already, because they are asking me this way. So your response will be a guess of how long you think the light may have been red, instead of responding, “the light was actually still yellow.”
In sum, it’s important to not only be mindful of what we’re saying, and think before we say something; but also, when asking questions, to ensure we aren’t asking leading questions when trying to find out information. If you’d like to read more about the misinformation effect, you can do so here: http://learnmem.cshlp.org/content/12/1/1.full. And to read about the impact the misinformation effect has eye witness testimony, you can read that here: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~mzaragoz/publications/Zaragoza%20chapter%204%20Garry%20Hayne.pdf.
Feel free to post your comments on this phenomenon below and if you have experienced the misinformation effect!
Works Cited (that links are not available to)
Ecker U., Lewandowsky S., Tang D.. Explicit warnings reduce but do not eliminate the continued influence of misinformation. Memory & Cognition [serial online]. 2010;38:1087-100
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact usto learn more or to book an appointment.