[Disclaimer: By posting this article I do not mean to advocate the mainstream view that conspiracies are impossible. Both evidence and logic suggest to me that not only do some exist, but most are small and banal, and thus common. Nonetheless, this article describes one reason we should not swallow any old conspiracy theory just because its purported villain is someone we don’t identify with, but instead regularly question “the truth” as we believe we “know” it. Of course that includes those who don’t believe in conspiracies.]
Recent polls have found that as much as 15% to 20% of the public, including about 30% to 45% of Republicans, falsely believe that President Barack Obama was not born in this country. Will Wednesday’s release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate put an end to the birther myth?The odds aren’t good. The problem is that people can be extremely resistant to unwelcome factual information. In 2005 and 2006, I conducted a series of experiments to study this problem with Jason Reifler, a political scientist at Georgia State University.
In these studies, undergraduate participants were given news articles in which a political figure made a misleading claim. In some cases, this claim was followed by a correction that set the record straight. Disturbingly, we found that corrective information in news articles often fails to reduce misperceptions among the ideological or partisan group that is most vulnerable to the false belief.
In some cases, corrections even made misperceptions worse — a result we call a “backfire effect.”
Unfortunately, this sort of response is typical. Many other studies have found that people tend to resist or reject information, including scientific evidence, that contradicts their pre-existing views.
In research that is under way, Reifler and I provide evidence that this defensive response is driven by the threat that contradictory information poses to people’s self-concept. When we first affirm individuals’ self-worth, those who are most likely to be misinformed report substantially lower misperceptions.
In this case, the birther movement has grown to its current prominence despite the release of a certification of live birth and the discovery of contemporaneous announcements of Obama’s birth in two Honolulu newspapers.
Given how much evidence is already available, it’s hard to see why a long-form birth certificate would suddenly change the minds of people who are predisposed to believe in the myth. The hardcore are already shifting to new rationales for questioning Obama’s right to hold office and deconstructing the PDF released by the White House for supposed evidence of forgery.
Read more here.