Do people keep believing because they want to? Preexisting attitudes and the continued influence of misinformation

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.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    This is in contrast to another common usage of the term misinformation in the literature on source memory, and in particular on eyewitness memory, where the term is used in a more general way to refer to erroneous information, and in particular postevent suggestive misinformation (cf. Loftus, 2005).

  2. 2.

    For discussion of the reverse effects of memory on attitudes, see Bizer, Tormala, Rucker, and Petty (Bizer et al. 2006), Hastie and Park (1986), and Loken and Hoverstad (1985).

  3. 3.

    The participants’ race or ethnicity was neither considered nor recorded in the participant selection process, and from publically available information we estimated that about 80 % of the participants were Caucasian and 20 % from culturally diverse (mainly Asian) backgrounds; only about 1 % could be expected to identify as Aboriginal.

  4. 4.

    The ATIA score of the high-prejudice group was on par with the population mean (2.85 on a 0–6 scale) reported in Pedersen et al. (2004). The participants in Pedersen et al. (2004) came from the same city (Perth) but were on average much older (49.7 years) and less educated (with less than half attending or having attended a tertiary institution) than were the participants of the present study. Pedersen et al. (2004) reported correlations of both age and education with racial prejudice, with younger and more educated people being on average less prejudiced. This means that our high-prejudice group cannot be described as extremely high in racial prejudice, but that the mean prejudice score was probably above average for a student population.

  5. 5.

    Repeating these analyses excluding participants who scored below 2 on the fact-recall questions (n = 3) and participants from the retraction condition with a retraction-awareness score of 0 (n = 6) did not substantially alter the pattern of results.

  6. 6.

    In contrast to previous studies, in which a central aspect of the scenario was retracted, such as the cause of a fire, the retraction in the present case concerned a relatively peripheral aspect of the scenario, and we hence expected a relatively low number of references to this critical piece of information.

  7. 7.

    For pragmatic reasons related to delays in ethics approval and project deadlines, prescreening was done on three separate occasions, and participants were selected from the upper and lower quartiles of the three resulting distributions.

  8. 8.

    Repeating these analyses excluding participants who scored below 2 on the fact-recall questions (n = 3) and participants from the retraction condition with a retraction-awareness score of 0 (n = 9) did not substantially alter the result pattern.

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Author note

This research was facilitated by a Discovery Grant and an Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Australian Research Council to the first author, and a Discovery Grant and a Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award from the Australian Research Council to the second author. We thank Charles Hanich and Devon Spaapen for research assistance, and Nic Fay for suggesting the stereotype-incongruent scenario used in Experiment 2. The lab Web address is www.cogsciwa.com.

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Correspondence to Ullrich K. H. Ecker.

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Ecker, U.K.H., Lewandowsky, S., Fenton, O. et al. Do people keep believing because they want to? Preexisting attitudes and the continued influence of misinformation. Mem Cogn 42, 292–304 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-013-0358-x

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Keywords

  • Misinformation
  • Continued influence effect
  • Attitudes
  • Beliefs
  • Motivated reasoning