Humans tend to be morecomfortable when they are able to construct the events in a scenario withcoherence and certainty. However, when one rebuffs a myth, this often disruptsthe equilibrium they have achieved.
When a myth is debunkedwithout the presentation of an alternative explanation, it leaves a gap in the mentalrepresentation of the story. As a result, people would tend towards recallingthe misinformation despite being aware of its correction, simply to ensure theycan present a complete picture. An incorrect but complete model is oftenpreferred over a correct but incomplete one. This need to have acomplete picture was demonstrated in an experiment where participants read afabricated story about a warehouse fire.
1 Volatile materials presentat the scene were first mentioned in the story. This was corrected after thestory by a statement saying there were no volatile materials at the scene.Participants were subsequently asked what they thought was the cause of the fireand of the large amounts of smoke. Answers referring to the volatile materialswere frequent despite the correction. This was the case even when theparticipants acknowledged they knew there was a retraction, and remembered thecontent of the retraction. However, whenparticipants were provided an alternative explanation for the fire, they were thenless likely to mention the volatile materials.
Further examples forthis effect was further illustrated in an experiment involving a fictionalmurder trial.2 When presented with additional suspects, and possiblealternate scenarios, the participants would be less likely to judge the initialsuspect as guilty. These illustrate howthe provision of alternative causes or explanations, hence filing in the gaps,could benefit attempts at correcting misinformation. This is due to how thealternate explanations enable the audience to still piece together both acoherent and complete sequence of events in their minds. This has thus far shownto be one of the most effective strategies in debunking misinformation.
As such, whencorrecting misinformation, always provide more than a simple retraction of theinformation. Alternate explanations should be provide as well. It is alsocritical that these alternatives are provided at the point of retraction, toensure the target audience can immediately begin to integrate the informationwith their existing representation of the event.