A pair of brain brainiacs, Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, today trot out an op-ed on why people believe falsehoods — or, more specifically, why over time they start buying what they at initially rejected. See "Your Brain Lies to You".
They tell us, for example, that we first store new facts in our hippocampus, a structure deep in our noggins (see photo above). But when we call the information into conscious memory, our brain rewrites it and eventually somehow transfers it to our cerebral cortex. The process divorces the facts from the context in which we learned them:
This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can . . . lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.
With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.
Blawgletter notes that it could also explain why decision-makers (like judges) can go horribly wrong in their conclusions. As source amnesia takes hold, an habitual liar’s repetition of lies turns the hippocampal falsehoods into cerebral cortexian truth. And the judges don’t even realize it!
Mr. Wang and Ms. Aamodt stress the importance of countering misleading statements without repeating them. Don’t simply deny the misinformation; that only re-emphasizes it. And don’t just ask for objectivity. The authors cite a Stanford study that shows the "please be fair" strategy doesn’t work.
What does? The authors suggest asking people "to imagine their reaction if the evidence had pointed to the opposite conclusion". That has the effect of making them "more open-minded to information that contradicted their beliefs. Apparently, it pays for consumers of controversial news to take a moment and consider that the opposite interpretation may be true."