The article originally appeared in Horizon Magazine.
The most powerful source of misperceptions about important issues such as immigration and climate change are false beliefs rooted in people’s political or social preferences, but having people who question authority is also important for a society, according to Professor Jason Reifler, a political scientist at the University of Exeter, UK.
Prof. Reifler is investigating misperceptions for a project called DEBUNKER. We spoke to him about why misperceptions persist and whether it’s possible to change people’s minds.
You’re in the middle of a five-year project looking at misperceptions that people hold about vaccines, climate, and immigration across Europe, with the aim of providing techniques that policymakers and others could use to help combat misperceptions. How do you define a misperception?
‘We look at cases in which people’s beliefs about factual matters are not supported by clear evidence and expert opinion — a definition that includes both false and unsubstantiated beliefs about the world and allows for change over time.’
Are vaccines, climate, and immigration areas where misperceptions are particularly common?
‘I'm not sure the misperceptions are necessarily more common in those three areas, but they are particularly consequential.
‘Misperceptions about immigration, for example, in some respects pose a threat to support for the EU, as evidenced by Brexit. Keeping high vaccination rates is particularly important, because not everybody can be vaccinated and so we need herd immunity to protect those who can't be. Climate change poses a threat to the structure of modern industrial life.
‘Because these areas are much more consequential, they get tied up in politics.
‘People's identities may become tied to these perceptions of the world, and therefore their perceptions on those topics may become more hardened or difficult to change.’
Where are those misperceptions coming from?
‘Misperceptions come from different sources. But, the most powerful source, and the one we care about the most, are the misperceptions that are rooted in people’s political or social preferences – cases where people are trusting of information because it accords with their likes and preferences (confirmation bias) or cases where people actively counter-argue against information because it conflicts with their likes and preferences (disconfirmation bias). But some misperceptions are rooted in basic human shortcomings – like cognitive biases or innumeracy.
‘In many cases – I won’t say all – misperceptions at the mass level come from somebody actively spreading misinformation. It isn’t the case that millions of people in America independently came to the incorrect conclusion that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. It took active propagation of this idea to spread.'
Are some people more susceptible to misperceptions than others?
‘One of the things we're looking at right now is people's confidence in their own knowledge and general distrust of experts. The people who hold misperceptions are particularly confident in the accuracy of what they know. This makes it more difficult to get them to update those misperceptions.
‘We find that people who are deferential to experts, when you give them new information, will update their factual beliefs, whereas people who are fairly distrusting of experts, if you give them new information, it just doesn't do anything at all.’
On that spectrum – with not trusting experts at one end, and being very deferential to them at the other – do you think there’s an ideal spot for someone to land?
‘For me, the question is not just whether there should be a particular place on that spectrum for any one person, but rather, “Is it good to have heterogeneity in the population?”
‘I think, unambiguously, there are times when it is good that there are people who are resistant to what authorities are telling them. When a dictator tries to come to power, and starts engaging in bad acts towards the population, or selected parts of the population, resistance there is super useful.
‘One of the concerns I’ve always had about this line of work is the potential for misuse. We would like people to believe that vaccines are safe. We would like people to see the threat that is posed by climate change. We would like people to accurately perceive the level of immigration in their country. But if we figured out the magic tool kit that allowed authorities to always get people to believe ‘the right thing’, are we just creating the ultimate demagogue’s toolkit?
‘While things like improving vaccination rates are important, we always have to be mindful of the flip side of this as well.’
Can misperceptions be tackled by simply giving people the correct information?
‘If it's something that's not strongly connected to identity, or if people don't have particularly strong attitudes coming in, people are receptive to new information.
‘On the one hand, that’s great. On the other hand, that probably means they're also receptive to counter-information. And so, protecting against misinformation is a constant battle.
For those who might be less receptive to new information, has your project found any methods we can use to change their minds?
‘I don't think that we have unlocked any particular magic tricks. But there are a couple things that we have found, building on the work of others.
‘Giving people information graphically works better than giving it to them as text, particularly with changes over time, like trend data. The downside is we don't know exactly why that's the case. Is it because graphs are easier to process? Is it because they're harder to process, and so people have to devote more cognitive effort, and therefore that takes away their ability to counter-argue?
‘Simple information treatments can also have positive, though perhaps limited, effects.
‘Similarly, corrections – specifically, correcting US president Donald Trump’s claims about crime – can improve people’s factual knowledge, although there was no spillover in feelings towards Trump himself.’
What lessons are there for people who are hoping to reduce misperceptions, such as government officials and the press?
‘(For the press), one is just always being accurate. Another is avoiding false balance and false equivalence, and not boosting the signal of people who send these implicit sort of conspiracy messages.
‘But I think the biggest one is that doing good work, so that people can read it, is important. To the extent that people are receptive to information, having this constant flow of good information is probably why most people are correct about things like vaccines and climate change.
‘Having good and correct information out there is really important because I think if that were to go away, things could get a lot worse.’
The research in this article was funded by the European Research Council. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.