When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions

Abstract

An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Kuklinski and Quirk (2000) and Lau and Redlawsk (2001) make a compelling argument that citizens are likely to fail to use heuristics correctly in even modestly complex situations.

  2. 2.

    For instance, Jerit and Barabas (2006) show that the prevalence of misleading statements about the financial status of Social Security in media coverage of the issue significantly increased the proportion of the public holding the false belief that the program was about to “run out of money completely.”

  3. 3.

    Interest in the subject is growing, however (see, e.g., Shani 2006 and Shapiro and Bloch-Elkon 2008).

  4. 4.

    In the experimental design sections below, we provide details about specific corrections and why one ideological group is likely to resist them while the other is likely to be more welcoming.

  5. 5.

    Backfire effects have also been observed as a result of source partisanship mismatches (Kriner and Howell n.d; Hartman and Weber 2009) or contrast effects in frame strength (Chong and Druckman 2007). The increase in support for the death penalty observed in Peffley and Hurwitz (2007) when whites are told that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory faction against blacks could also be interpreted as a backfire effect. However, we focus on the type of backfire effect identified by Chong and Druckman as “occur[ring] in response to strong frames on highly accessible controversial issues that provoke counterarguing by motivated partisan or ideological individuals” (641).

  6. 6.

    Meffert et al. (2006) find a very similar result in another simulated campaign experiment.

  7. 7.

    We report evidence of this phenomenon below in the Study 2 experiment concerning the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction immediately before the U.S. invasion.

  8. 8.

    Of course, another possible moderator is partisanship, which is highly correlated with ideology in contemporary American politics. The results reported below are substantively almost identical when partisanship is used as a moderator instead (details available upon request).

  9. 9.

    The signs of the coefficients will vary in practice depending on whether misperceptions about the issue are more likely among liberals or conservatives.

  10. 10.

    We examine such an explanation in the Iraq WMD portion of Study 2 below.

  11. 11.

    Participants, who received course credit for participation, signed up via an online subject pool management system for students in psychology courses and were provided with a link that randomly assigned them to treatment conditions. Standard caveats about generalizing from a convenience sample apply. In terms of external validity, college students are more educated than average and may thus be more able to resist corrections (Zaller 1992). However, college students are also known to have relatively weak self-definition, poorly formed attitudes, and to be relatively easily influenced (Sears 1986)—all characteristics that would seem to reduce the likelihood of resistance and backfire effects. In addition, as Druckman and Nelson note (2003, p. 733), the related literatures on framing, priming and agenda-setting have found causal processes that operate consistently in student and non-student samples (Kühberger 1998, p. 36, Miller and Krosnick 2000, p. 313). For a general defense of the use of student samples in experimental research, see Druckman and Kam (2010).

  12. 12.

    Evidence on WMD did not change appreciably after the October 2004 release of the Duelfer Report. No other relevant developments took place until June 2006, when two members of Congress promoted the discovery of inactive chemical shells from the Iran–Iraq War as evidence of WMD (Linzer 2006).

  13. 13.

    68 percent of respondents in Study 1 were female; 62 percent were white; 56 percent were Catholic. For a convenience sample, respondents were reasonably balanced on both ideology (48 percent left of center, 27 percent centrist, 25 percent right of center) and partisanship (27 percent Republican or lean Republican, 25 percent independent, 48 percent Democrat or lean Democrat).

  14. 14.

    The experiment was technically a 3 × 2 design with two types of corrections, but we omit the alternative correction condition here for ease of exposition. Excluding these data does not substantively affect the key results presented in this paper.

  15. 15.

    While President Bush argued that the report showed that Saddam “retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce” WMD, he and his administration did not dispute its conclusion that Iraq did not have WMD or an active weapons program at the time of the U.S. invasion (Balz 2004).

  16. 16.

    Again, the wording of this dependent variable reflects our definition of misperceptions as beliefs that are either provably false or contradicted by the best available evidence and consensus expert opinion. As we note earlier, it is not possible to definitely disprove the notion that Saddam had WMD and/or an active WMD program immediately prior to the U.S. invasion, but the best available evidence overwhelmingly contradicts that claim.

  17. 17.

    We use a Likert scale rather than a simple binary response for the dependent variable in each of our studies because we are interested in capturing as much variance as possible in subjects’ levels of belief in various misperceptions of interest. This variance is especially important to understanding the effect of corrections, which may change people’s level of agreement or disagreement with a claim without necessarily switching them from one side of the midpoint to another. In addition, when subjects are pushed from one side of the midpoint to another, the Likert scale allows us to capture the magnitude of the change.

  18. 18.

    OLS regression models are used in this paper to facilitate interpretation and the construction of marginal effect plots. Results are substantively identical with ordered probit (available upon request).

  19. 19.

    In addition, interactions between mortality salience and the correction condition were not statistically significant (results available upon request). As such, we do not discuss it further.

  20. 20.

    This interaction was not moderated by political knowledge. When we estimated models with the full array of interactions between knowledge, ideology, and corrections, we could not reject the null hypothesis that the model fit was not improved for any of the studies in this paper (results available upon request).

  21. 21.

    The raw data are especially compelling. The percentage of conservatives agreeing with the statement that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the US invasion increased from 32% in the control condition to 64% in the correction condition (n = 33). By contrast, for non-conservatives, agreement went from 22% to 13% (n = 97).

  22. 22.

    More generally, Hartman and Weber (2009) and Baum and Groeling (2009) find that messages from sources that match a subject’s ideological or partisan affiliation are more persuasive than those that do not.

  23. 23.

    We also conducted an experiment correcting a claim made by Michael Moore in the movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” that the war in Afghanistan was motivated by Unocal’s desire to build an natural gas pipeline through the country. All results of substantive importance to this paper were insignificant. The full wording and results of this experiment are available upon request.

  24. 24.

    62 percent of respondents to Study 2 were women; 59 percent were Catholic; and 65 percent were white. The sample was again reasonably balanced for a convenience sample on both ideology (52 percent left of center, 17 percent centrist, 31 percent right of center) and partisanship (46 percent Democrat or lean Democrat, 20 percent independent, 33 percent Republican or lean Republican).

  25. 25.

    Three-way interactions between news source, the correction, and ideology were also insignificant (results available upon request).

  26. 26.

    Each of the statistical models in Study 2 excludes two subjects with missing data (one failed to answer any dependent variable questions and the other did not report his ideological self-identification).

  27. 27.

    Specifically, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (2004, 2006) found that belief that Iraq had actual WMD immediately before the U.S. invasion declined from 47 to 41% among Republicans between October 2004 and March 2006.

  28. 28.

    65 subjects from Study 1 were asked this question, which was added to the instrument partway through its administration.

  29. 29.

    CBS and CBS/New York Times polls both show statistically significant declines in the percentage of conservatives who called Iraq the most important issue facing the country between September 2005 and May 2006 (details available upon request).

  30. 30.

    The estimated marginal effect of the correction is positive and statistically significant for liberals who did not choose Iraq as the most important issue. However, this effect is not clear in the raw data. Among subjects who placed themselves to the left of center, a two-sided t-test (unequal variance) cannot reject the null hypothesis that misperception levels of the correction and control groups are equal (p < 0.28).

  31. 31.

    Factcheck.org offers an excellent primer on the claim that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenue (Robertson 2007).

  32. 32.

    Again, the raw data are compelling. The percentage of conservatives agreeing with the statement that President Bush's tax cuts have increased government revenue went from 36 to 67% (n = 60). By contrast, for non-conservatives, agreement went from 31 to 28% (n = 136).

  33. 33.

    It is plausible, for instance, that the stem cell misperception failed to provoke a backfire effect because it was less salient to liberals than the WMD and tax cut misperceptions were for conservatives. Also, conservatives may have been more motivated to defend claims made by President Bush than liberals were to defend statements made by the Democratic Party’s defeated presidential ticket.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brendan Nyhan.

Additional information

A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. We thank anonymous reviewers, the editors, and audiences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Northwestern University, and the Duke Political Science Graduate Student Colloquium for valuable feedback.

Appendix

Appendix

Study 1 (WMD): News Text

Wilkes-Barre, PA, October 7, 2004 (AP)—President Bush delivered a hard-hitting speech here today that made his strategy for the remainder of the campaign crystal clear: a rousing, no-retreat defense of the Iraq war.

Bush maintained Wednesday that the war in Iraq was the right thing to do and that Iraq stood out as a place where terrorists might get weapons of mass destruction.

“There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks, and in the world after September the 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take,” Bush said.

[Correction]

While Bush was making campaign stops in Pennsylvania, the Central Intelligence Agency released a report that concludes that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of illicit weapons at the time of the U.S. invasion in March 2003, nor was any program to produce them under way at the time. The report, authored by Charles Duelfer, who advises the director of central intelligence on Iraqi weapons, says Saddam made a decision sometime in the 1990s to destroy known stockpiles of chemical weapons. Duelfer also said that inspectors destroyed the nuclear program sometime after 1991.

[All subjects]

The President travels to Ohio tomorrow for more campaign stops.

Study 1 (WMD): Dependent Variable

Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program, the ability to produce these weapons, and large stockpiles of WMD, but Saddam Hussein was able to hide or destroy these weapons right before U.S. forces arrived.

  • Strongly disagree [1]

  • Somewhat disagree [2]

  • Neither agree nor disagree [3]

  • Somewhat agree [4]

  • Strongly agree [5]

Study 2, Experiment 1 (WMD): News Text

[New York Times/FoxNews.com]

December 14, 2005

During a speech in Washington, DC on Wednesday, President Bush maintained that the war in Iraq was the right thing to do and that Iraq stood out as a place where terrorists might get weapons of mass destruction.

“There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks, and in the world after September the 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take,” Bush said.

[Correction]

In 2004, the Central Intelligence Agency released a report that concludes that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of illicit weapons at the time of the U.S. invasion in March 2003, nor was any program to produce them under way at the time.

[All subjects]

The President travels to Ohio tomorrow to give another speech about Iraq.

Study 2, Experiment 1 (WMD): Dependent Variable

Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program and large stockpiles of WMD.

  • Strongly disagree [1]

  • Somewhat disagree [2]

  • Neither agree nor disagree [3]

  • Somewhat agree [4]

  • Strongly agree [5]

Study 2, Experiment 2 (Tax Cuts): News Text

[New York Times/FoxNews.com]

August 6, 2005

President George W. Bush urged Congress to make permanent the tax cuts enacted during his first term and draft legislation to bolster the Social Security program, after the lawmakers return from their August break.

“The tax relief stimulated economic vitality and growth and it has helped increase revenues to the Treasury,” Bush said in his weekly radio address. “The increased revenues and our spending restraint have led to good progress in reducing the federal deficit.”

The expanding economy is helping reduce the amount of money the U.S. government plans to borrow from July through September, the Treasury Department said on Wednesday. The government will borrow a net $59 billion in the current quarter, $44 billion less than it originally predicted, as a surge in tax revenue cut the forecast for the federal budget deficit.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget last month forecast a $333 billion budget gap for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, down from a record $412 billion last year.

[Correction]

However, even with the recent increases, revenues in 2005 will remain well below previous projections from the Congressional Budget Office. The major tax cut of 2001 and further cuts in each of the last three years were followed by an unprecedented three-year decline in nominal tax revenues, from $2 trillion in 2000 to $1.8 trillion in 2003. Last year, revenues rebounded slightly to $1.9 trillion. But at 16.3 percent of the gross domestic product, last year’s revenue total, measured against the size of the economy, was the lowest level since 1959.

Study 2, Experiment 2 (Tax Cuts): Dependent Variable

President Bush’s tax cuts have increased government revenue.

  • Strongly disagree [1]

  • Somewhat disagree [2]

  • Neither agree nor disagree [3]

  • Somewhat agree [4]

  • Strongly agree [5]

Study 2, Experiment 3 (Stem Cell Research): News Text

[New York Times/FoxNews.com]

August 10, 2004

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) yesterday slammed President Bush and promised that a Kerry administration would support the promising young field of embryonic stem cell research.

The vice presidential contender’s comments came on the third anniversary of President Bush’s televised address to the nation announcing a funding policy for the controversial research, which relies on human embryos as a source of cells.

The much-debated but still experimental field of study has become an unanticipated wedge issue in this fall’s election. Edwards’s running mate on the Democratic ticket, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), mentioned the topic in a number of speeches last week. Kerry also devoted a large chunk of the Democrats’ weekly radio address Saturday to it, saying that science should not be sacrificed for ideology.

“We’re going to lift the ban on stem cell research,” Kerry said. “We’re going to listen to our scientists and stand up for science. We’re going to say yes to knowledge, yes to discovery and yes to a new era of hope for all Americans.”

[Correction]

However, experts pointed out that Bush’s action does not limit private funding of stem cell research. He is actually the first president to allow the use of federal funds to study human embryonic stem cells, but his policy limits federal support of such research to colonies derived from embryos already destroyed by August 2001.

Study 2, Experiment 3 (Stem Cell Research): Dependent Variable

President Bush has banned stem cell research in the United States.

  • Strongly disagree [1]

  • Somewhat disagree [2]

  • Neither agree nor disagree [3]

  • Somewhat agree [4]

  • Strongly agree [5]

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Nyhan, B., Reifler, J. When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Polit Behav 32, 303–330 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2

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Keywords

  • Misperceptions
  • Misinformation
  • Ignorance
  • Knowledge
  • Correction
  • Backfire