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Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at church (not a mosque). (AP photo)

How unscrupulous campaign strategists are taking advantage of a quirk in our brains – and what reporters can do to stop helping them

COMMENTARY | August 25, 2008

Because of the way humans process information, political journalists who think they are dispelling false beliefs may actually be spreading them. Two brain experts offer ground rules for reporters who want to avoid becoming accessories to disinformation campaigns. Rule one: Stop repeating things that aren't true.

By Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt
sswang@princeton.edu and sandra.aamodt@gmail.com

In this year's mud-filled presidential campaign, journalists have a responsibility to help the public distinguish fact from fiction. Unfortunately, current reporting practices are undermined by the quirky and often misleading ways that our brains process contradictory information. Understanding those quirks suggests four techniques to help journalists dispel false beliefs.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, Americans increasingly get their news from multiple sources. More than one-third use Internet-based sources such as Web sites, blogs, and even social networking sites. Only a minority rely entirely on traditional sources, including print, radio, television, and cable news. The survey did not include chain e-mail, which has fed rumors that Christian presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is a Muslim. This proliferation of sources creates competitive pressure on journalists to bend their standards in order to get a story quickly.

Our brains tend to remember facts that accord with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it. In one Stanford study, 48 students, half of whom said they favored capital punishment and half of whom said they opposed it, were shown two pieces of evidence. One confirmed the claim that capital punishment deters crime, and the other contradicted it. Both groups were more convinced by the evidence that supported their initial position, a phenomenon known as biased assimilation.

This is one reason that propagandists can be effective simply by creating confusion. Unscrupulous campaign strategists know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked.

The human brain also does not save information permanently, as do computer drives and printed pages. Recent research suggests that every time the brain recalls a piece of information, it is "written" down again and often modified in the process. Along the way, the fact is gradually separated from its original context. For example, most people don't remember how they know that the capital of Massachusetts is Boston.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, leads people to forget over time where they heard a statement - and whether it is true. A statement that is initially not believed can gain credibility during the months that it takes to reprocess memories from short-term to longer-term storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications may gain strength. Source amnesia could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some time for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to affect his standing in the race.

In another Stanford study, students were exposed repeatedly to the unsubstantiated claim that Coca-Cola is an effective paint thinner. Those who read the statement five times were nearly one-third more likely than those who read it only twice to attribute it to Consumer Reports (rather than the National Enquirer), giving it a gloss of credibility. Thus the classic opening line "I think I read somewhere," or even reference to a specific source, is often used to support falsehoods. Similarly, psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues have shown that if people are distracted from thinking critically, they default to automatically accepting statements as true.

Finally, ideas can spread by emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits. Memory formation is aided by the universal emotions of fear and disgust. Moral disgust played a role in 2000, when Bush campaign operatives spread false rumors that Senator John McCain had fathered a mixed-race child, damaging McCain’s support among southern Republican primary voters.

Journalists should avoid presenting both sides of a story when one is false - and take into account how readers' brains process the disagreements. The following four rules can guide their efforts.

1. State the facts without reinforcing the falsehood. Repeating a false rumor can inadvertently make it stronger. In covering the controversy over a New Yorker cover caricaturing Barack and Michelle Obama, many journalists repeated the charges against the candidate - often citing polling data on how many Americans believe them - before noting that the beliefs were false. Particularly damaging is the common practice of replaying parts of an ad before debunking its content.

A related mistake is saying that something is newsworthy because "the story is out there." Reporting on coverage by a less credible source such as The Drudge Report, even with disclaimers, will inevitably spread the story. False statements should not be presented neutrally since they are likely to be remembered later as being true.

2. Tell the truth with images. Nearly half of the brain is dedicated to processing visual information. When images do not match words, viewers tend to remember what they see, not what they hear. Karl Rove has said that campaigns should be run as if the television's sound is turned down.

Television journalists should avoid presenting images that contradict the story. One recent CNN report on autism was accompanied by images of concerned mothers, vaccines, doctor’s offices, and autistic children - even though the voiceover reported a scientific finding that debunked a link between vaccines and autism. Another recent story featured a threatening swarthy face subtitled "Obama the Antichrist?" - a statement that CNN would presumably not claim to be true.

3. Provide a compelling storyline or mental framework for the truth. Effective debunking requires replacing the falsehood with positive content. A good response to the McCain rumor, for example, would tell about his adoption of his adopted Bangladeshi daughter Bridget, thereby accounting for photographs of him with a dark-skinned child.

4. Discredit the source. Ideas have special staying power if they evoke a feeling of disgust. Indeed, brain pathways dedicated to processing disgust can be activated by descriptions of morally repellent behavior. The motives of the purveyors of falsehoods can provide a powerful story hook. A recent example is the press coverage pointing out Obama Nation author Jerome Corsi's motivations and past of racist Web commentary and allegations of Bush Administration complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

To avoid contributing to the formation of false beliefs, journalists may need to re-examine their practices. In 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." Our brains do not naturally obey this admirable dictum. But by better understanding the mechanisms of memory, perhaps journalists can move their modern audience closer to Holmes's ideal.


Sam Wang, an associate professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton University, and Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, are the authors of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.”

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