Reducing reliance on inaccurate information

Abstract

People learn from the texts that they read, but sometimes what they read is wrong. Previous research has demonstrated that individuals encode even obvious inaccuracies, at times relying on the misinformation to complete postreading tasks. In the present study, we investigated whether the influence of inaccurate information might be reduced by encouraging the retrieval of accurate knowledge. Participants read an extended text that contained both accurate and inaccurate assertions, after which they evaluated the validity of statements associated with those assertions. In general, participants made more mistakes in their evaluations of statements after having read inaccurate as compared to accurate assertions, offering evidence of the influence of misinformation. However, when participants were tasked with correcting inaccuracies during reading, their mistakes were substantially reduced. Encouraging the retrieval of accurate knowledge during reading can reduce the influence of misinformation. These findings are discussed with respect to the contributions of episodic traces and prior knowledge on learning, as well as to the conditions that support successful comprehension.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We used a fictional text for three reasons: (1) previous work has focused on fictional texts to demonstrate that participants rely on their contents even though they seemingly should encourage more skeptical evaluation than do expository materials; (2) interactions with fiction represent an important set of experiences that prove directly relevant to everyday life; and (3) fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, affords the opportunity to design materials in which inaccuracies can be presented without creating inordinately awkward content and structure.

  2. 2.

    The participants also completed three personality and individual-difference surveys as part of the laboratory procedures at the conclusion of the experiment, including measures of narrative transport and need for cognition. The scores on these surveys did not correlate with performance on the task and are omitted from further discussion.

  3. 3.

    We also conducted these analyses by conceptualizing performance in Experiment 1B as a baseline and subtracting the data from Experiment 1A. Specifically, we subtracted out control accuracy rates from the accurate and inaccurate statement accuracy rates obtained in Experiment 1A. This analysis showed that the main effect of story assertion was still significant [F 1(1, 27) = 6.99, MSE = .386, p < .05, η p 2 = .21; F 2(1, 14)  =  13.23, MSE  =  .02, p < .01, η p 2 = .49], whereas the main effect of test statement and the interaction were not (all Fs < 1). Again, the pattern suggests that participants acquired inaccurate rather than accurate information.

  4. 4.

    We also considered whether different types of edits may have had different influences on subsequent error rates. Specifically, a more conservative coding was also adopted in which an edit was coded as a hit only if it included a written correction, rather than other marks such as a strikethrough of a line of text. A total of 20 participants had both misses and corrections (after excluding simple marks or strikethroughs). As with the more liberal coding scheme, participants made fewer errors when an inaccuracy was explicitly corrected (M = 7.67 %) than when it was missed (M = 27.05 %) [t(19) = 2.64, p = .016, d = 0.83].

  5. 5.

    Overall, the percentage of inaccurate judgments in Experiment 3 was lower than the percentages obtained in the previous experiments. This pattern is likely attributable to the modifications of the materials described in the Method section. But even with such reductions, the obtained patterns of inaccurate judgments between conditions resembled those obtained across Experiments 1A and 2.

  6. 6.

    We additionally examined whether the benefits of careful editing were a function of time on task. In Experiment 3, we recorded, using a stopwatch, the amount of time that participants took to read through a story. The data for two participants were not recorded due to error. Reading times, in minutes and seconds, were longest in the fact-checking condition (M = 24:08, SD = 7:39), followed by the highlighting (M = 22:53, SD = 6:25) and control (M = 19:41, SD = 5:03) conditions. The main effect of instructions was significant [F(2, 91) = 4.00, p = .02, η p 2 = .08], with only the Bonferroni-corrected contrast between fact-checking and control conditions being significant (p = .02). But, interestingly, the critical Story Assertion × Instruction interaction was still significant after controlling for time [F(2, 90) = 3.40, p = .04, η p 2 = .07], suggesting that any benefits of evaluation during reading were not solely due to time on task. We thank a reviewer for recommending this analysis.

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Author note

We thank Allison Weinberg for her assistance in data collection. We also thank Matt Jacovina and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.

Correspondence concerning this manuscript should be addressed to David N. Rapp, 2120 Campus Drive, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208 (e-mail: rapp@northwestern.edu).

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Correspondence to David N. Rapp.

Appendices

Appendix A: Sample assertions and test statements from Experiments 1A and 2

Item #1: Toothbrushing and gum disease

Accurate story version

“And I never brushed my teeth this morning,” Brad continued, disregarding Dane’s remark. “I feel like my mouth is full of grimy cotton.” “That’s unfortunate,” said Abrams. “Americans don’t brush their teeth nearly enough—in the long-run it’s going to do us a great deal of harm.” “Is this another part of your doctor’s new fitness regime?” Brad asked, with more than a hint of sarcasm. “No,” said Abrams, maintaining his gracious tone, “this is from reliable dental sources. It was widely reported. There was a big article in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago. Do you ever read the paper?” Dane grinned, and Brad groaned. “I did when I was a free man. But I don’t remember any toothbrushing article. What did it say?” “Well it turns out that most people aren’t brushing often enough, and even fewer are flossing like they should. Americans brush their teeth on average 1.3 times a day, when it’s recommended that you should brush your teeth after every meal. That’s why so many people are having problems with their gums. Anyway, that was the point of the article: frequent toothbrushing prevents gum disease.”

Inaccurate story version

“And I never brushed my teeth this morning,” Brad continued, disregarding Dane’s remark. “I feel like my mouth is full of grimy cotton.” “It’s just as well,” said Abrams. “Americans brush their teeth too much—in the long-run it’s going to do us more harm than good.” “Is this another part of your doctor’s Eastern medical philosophy?” Brad asked, with more than a hint of sarcasm. “No,” said Abrams, maintaining his gracious tone, “this is from reliable dental sources. It was widely reported. There was a big article in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago. Do you ever read the paper?” Dane grinned, and Brad groaned. “I did when I was a free man. But I don’t remember any toothbrushing article. What did it say?” “Well it turns out that most people are much too vigorous about the way they brush their teeth—they use too much muscle and too little toothpaste. Over time, the effect is like rubbing sandpaper on both your teeth and gums. That’s why so many people are having problems with their gums. Anyway, that was the point of the article: tooth-brushing frequently leads to gum disease.”

Accurate test statement:

Not brushing your teeth enough can lead to gum disease.

Inaccurate test statement:

Brushing your teeth can lead to gum disease.

Item #2: Seatbelts and safety

Accurate story version

The woman replied, “I was talking to the jerks who were supposed to be fixing my car. I probably have the most dishonest mechanic in the whole state. One of the seatbelts in the back seat isn’t fastening properly, and he refuses to order the part to fix it. He claims that seatbelts are some kind of a hazard.” “So what’s the big deal?” Abrams asked. “Seatbelts save lives,” the woman said. “My friend’s dad died because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.” “I’m sure you’re exaggerating. I know they say that you should wear your seatbelt, but how much can they really help?” “His parents were in a car accident,” the woman explained. “They were hit from the rear and the car caught on fire. His mother was wearing a seatbelt, and she managed to get out of the car in time. But his father was knocked unconscious, and he burned to death.” “How dreadful,” Abrams said. “I guess that’s why it’s illegal not to wear a seatbelt.” “Yes,” the woman stated confidently. “We’re working to get that law strengthened. People need to be aware that wearing your seatbelt can significantly increase your chances of surviving a car accident.”

Inaccurate story version

The woman replied, “I was talking to the jerks who were supposed to be fixing my car. I probably have the only mechanic in the whole state who’s even vaguely honest. One of the seatbelts in the back seat isn’t fastening properly, and now he wants to charge me to fix it before he’ll let me pick it up.” “So what’s the big deal?” Abrams asked. “I really don’t want any seatbelts,” the woman said. “My friend’s dad died because he was wearing a seatbelt.” “I’ve never heard of that before.” “His parents were in a car accident,” the woman explained. “They were hit from the rear and the car caught on fire. His mother wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and she was thrown clear. But his father was trapped, and he burned.” “How dreadful,” Abrams said. “But isn’t it illegal to drive without seat belts?” “Yes, but not for long,” the woman stated confidently. “We’re working to get that law amended. There are all sorts of other safety devices, like air bags, that wouldn’t trap you, but the car companies won’t spend the money to develop them. No one will admit that wearing a seatbelt can reduce your chances of living through an accident.”

Accurate test statement:

Wearing a seatbelt can increase your chances of living through an accident.

Inaccurate test statement:

Wearing a seatbelt can reduce your chances of living through an accident.

These test statements also appeared in Experiment 1B.

Appendix B: Sample assertions with contextual supports removed in Experiment 3

Item #1: Toothbrushing and gum disease

Accurate story version

“And I never brushed my teeth this morning,” Brad continued, disregarding Dane’s remark. “I feel like my mouth is full of grimy cotton.” “That’s unfortunate,” said Abrams. “Americans don’t brush their teeth enough, and too little tooth-brushing leads to gum disease.”

Inaccurate story version

“And I never brushed my teeth this morning,” Brad continued, disregarding Dane’s remark. “I feel like my mouth is full of grimy cotton.” “It’s just as well,” said Abrams. “Americans brush their teeth too much, and too much toothbrushing leads to gum disease.”

Item #2: Seatbelts and safety

Accurate story version

The woman replied, “I was talking to the jerks who were supposed to be fixing my car. One of the seatbelts in the back seat isn’t fastening properly, and it will cost a lot of money to replace.” “So what’s the big deal?” Abrams asked. “I need to replace it because wearing a seatbelt will make it more likely to survive a car accident.”

Inaccurate story version

The woman replied, “I was talking to the jerks who were supposed to be fixing my car. One of the seatbelts in the back seat isn’t fastening properly, and it will cost a lot of money to replace.” “So what’s the big deal?” Abrams asked. “I don’t want to replace it because wearing a seatbelt will make it less likely to survive a car accident.”

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Rapp, D.N., Hinze, S.R., Kohlhepp, K. et al. Reducing reliance on inaccurate information. Mem Cogn 42, 11–26 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-013-0339-0

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Keywords

  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Prior knowledge
  • Reading comprehension
  • Persuasion
  • Text processing