A new University of Cambridge study on American attitudes and belief systems has shown that false information about climate change can create mental blocks that work to cancel out more accurate information. However, the researchers also found that by deliberately including small doses of misinformation alongside legitimate ideas, the falsehoods could be effectively erased while allowing the facts to be accepted.
Physically, vaccines work by introducing a weakened form of an illness to help build immunity against that particular virus. Similarly, this study presented the idea of a psychological inoculation, finding that small amounts of misinformation can act as a sort of mental vaccine. The research showed that this technique allowed the subject to become more open-minded and accepting of accurate information that otherwise may have been outright rejected.
The team behind the research took into account the sheer amount of misinformation currently available to the public and speculated that combating the influence of so-called “fake news” regarding climate change at this point may actually rely on introducing accurate information alongside small bits of misinformation.
According to the study, when reactions to both climate change facts and myths were recorded and compared, an interesting pattern emerged. When climate change myths were delivered directly following accurate statements, the misinformation completely erased the facts in the subject’s minds.
However, when the researchers included a small tidbit of misinformation into the presentation of the climate change facts, the psychological inoculation was enough to coax a more open-minded approach to the new information, even when followed up by additional exposure to falsehoods.
The study, one of the first on “inoculation theory,” found that this particular method was able to successfully shift the opinions of Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters.
Lead researcher and social psychologist Dr. Sander van der Linden explained the effects of conflicting information on the general public, and how the “fake news vaccine” may help cancel out some of the misinformation.
“Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus. We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by preemptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience. A warning that helps preserve the facts. The idea is to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation, so the next time people come across it they are less susceptible.”
Before the study began, researchers carefully selected the subject matter, choosing climate change as a particularly politically-charged, yet scientifically validated topic. Dr. van der Linden and fellow researchers then sought to find the most commonly believed climate change myths. Ending up with the well-known falsehood — that no consensus exists among scientists regarding the effects of human activity on the planet’s well-being, the study contrasted that myth with an accurate statement — that 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is indeed caused by humans. Previous work done by van der Linden has shown that the latter fact is an effective gateway for public acceptance, according to Science Daily.
“It’s uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society,” said van der Linden. “A lot of people’s attitudes toward climate change aren’t very firm. They are aware there is a debate going on, but aren’t necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one.”
“We found that inoculation messages were equally effective in shifting the opinions of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science,” said van der Linden. “What’s striking is that, on average, we found no backfire effect to inoculation messages among groups predisposed to reject climate science, they didn’t seem to retreat into conspiracy theories. There will always be people completely resistant to change, but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little.”
The researchers also noted that oil and tobacco industries, in particular, have long used a version of psychological inoculation of their own to plant seeds of doubt regarding scientific research that interferes with their bottom line. However, this study showed that the undermining of scientific consensus for private profit could be at least partially reversed, meaning that the truth is indeed more powerful than lies.
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