The Stickiness of Misinformation

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 10 October 2012

Together with colleagues Ullrich Ecker, Colleen Seifert, Norbert Schwarz, and John Cook I recently published a review paper of the literature on misinformation—why does misinformation "stick" to people's memories? Why would anyone believe patent nonsense, such as the claim that President Obama was born outside the U.S.? And how can we help people discard such erroneous beliefs?

The citation for the paper can be found below, and here are links to a fairly extensive follow-up interview conducted by the American Psychological Society:


Lewandowsky, S.; Ecker, U. K. H.; Seifert, C.; Schwarz, N. & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 106-131.

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. Billy Blofeld at 06:02 AM on 11 October, 2012

    Has there been any research done on state broadcasters and their broadcast of misinformation?

    State broadcasters appear to wield very potent weapons which magnify the stickiness of misinformation:

    1) Misinformation by omission of counter argument

    2) Misinformation through continual self-promotion by a biased broadcaster falsely portraying themselves as being impartial

    3) Self regulating state broadcaster which investigates and rejects all accusations that it broadcasts misinformation


    Billy Blofeld
    United Kingdom
  2. Stephan Lewandowsky at 12:39 PM on 11 October, 2012
    @1: Interesting questions but, alas, I know of no research that has addressed them.
  3. The thing I'm learning from your work, Stephan, is that repetition of facts can help, but framing is just as important when misinformation has 'stuck'. And as I understand it, it's best to avoid repeating the misinformation as far as possible, instead present the facts and try to acknowledge/appeal to the values of the person to whom you are talking.

    For example, with climate change discussions on the internet, the person to whom you are really talking might be a reader other than the person to whom you are responding (ie you're not necessarily 'talking' to the person who is presenting the misinformation). A bit like debates where the speakers are actually talking to the audience not the opposing debating team.

    I find this and similar research important and helpful even for the layperson. (I reckon some people are beyond what can be done in normal discussions, they need a few sessions of therapy to shift the misinformation they cling to, and even that might not be enough.)
  4. There's an interesting piece on the Australian Psychological Society's website:

    Understanding the psychological barriers to climate change action, by Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior Psychologist, Public Interest, Environment and Disaster Response, APS National Office
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