Friday, November 29, 2013

Misinformation and bias

Narratives, or "frames," are important cognitive tools that organize information and manage complexity. Narratives also allow for efficient communication, although sometimes at the cost of completeness.  To describe someone as a "dog person," for example, may prompt the listener to picture what she likes, how she spends her time, and what she enjoys talking about.  And while this picture, developed from just two words, may capture a great deal about our dog lover, it leaves out what the frame did not include, such as the "dog person's" passion for gardening and bicycling. Narratives also create the conditions ripe for the inclusion of misinformation, such as the incorrect description of our subject as a "cat hater," which can be highly resistant to correction when it fits well into pre-existing frames.

Narratives play an important part in understanding post-divorce conflicts.  Conflicting divorced parents usually create a narrative that explains and justifies their involvement in the dispute. Oftentimes, a court's or evaluator's challenge is to sort out whether, or how much, of a parent's narrative is an accurate frame from which to view the confict. One mother justified blocking the father's access to the children as a form of protection. She sought support for her position by alleging: (1) that he was an abusive, controlling husband, who (2) frightened the children and (3) committed adultery.  Although a psychological evaluation, collateral sources and court findings did not support the mother's narrative, the mother's counselors as well as the children, extended family members and allied professionals continued to perceive the father as a danger.

What cognitive factors contribute to people maintaining a false picture, even when provided accurate information?  One factor is repetition: the more times information is repeated, the more likely it is to be believed and the harder it is to correct if it later turns out to be incorrect.  And when new information is compatible with what is already believed, it is likely to be accepted and incorporated into the narrative. Thus, once a narrative shapes a worldview, even incorrect beliefs can become fixed in the mind's eye and resist correction. Interestingly, presenting factually correct information can "backfire," prompting counter-arguments to information that contradicts the prevailing narrative. The father in the above case, for example, showed his children bank statements demonstrating that their mother's allegation that he did not pay child support was false.  The children, however, reacted by accusing him of falsifying the statements, saying the statements were further evidence that he was a "deadbeat liar."  They felt more certain of his bad character after they saw the bank statements than before.

Lack of skepticism also contributes to misinformation becoming entrenched in a particular narrative, particularly when there are relatively few "voices" expressing doubts about the accuracy of the information or the source's motivations. People suspend doubt and go along with the a prevailing point of view ("popular opinion") in part to avoid being an outlier. But casting doubt on a source's motivations can introduce a skeptical mindset.  Teenagers, for example, are less susceptible to tobacco industry advertising when the companies' motivation is defined as an effort to manipulate the teens into using something that will ultimately harm them.

The next post will identify several other strategies for overcoming misinformation, bias, and the backfire effect.