Humans tend to be more
comfortable when they are able to construct the events in a scenario with
coherence and certainty. However, when one rebuffs a myth, this often disrupts
the equilibrium they have achieved.
When a myth is debunked
without the presentation of an alternative explanation, it leaves a gap in the mental
representation of the story. As a result, people would tend towards recalling
the misinformation despite being aware of its correction, simply to ensure they
can present a complete picture. An incorrect but complete model is often
preferred over a correct but incomplete one.
This need to have a
complete picture was demonstrated in an experiment where participants read a
fabricated story about a warehouse fire.1 Volatile materials present
at the scene were first mentioned in the story. This was corrected after the
story by a statement saying there were no volatile materials at the scene.
Participants were subsequently asked what they thought was the cause of the fire
and of the large amounts of smoke. Answers referring to the volatile materials
were frequent despite the correction. This was the case even when the
participants acknowledged they knew there was a retraction, and remembered the
content of the retraction.
participants were provided an alternative explanation for the fire, they were then
less likely to mention the volatile materials.
Further examples for
this effect was further illustrated in an experiment involving a fictional
murder trial.2 When presented with additional suspects, and possible
alternate scenarios, the participants would be less likely to judge the initial
suspect as guilty.
These illustrate how
the provision of alternative causes or explanations, hence filing in the gaps,
could benefit attempts at correcting misinformation. This is due to how the
alternate explanations enable the audience to still piece together both a
coherent and complete sequence of events in their minds. This has thus far shown
to be one of the most effective strategies in debunking misinformation.
As such, when
correcting misinformation, always provide more than a simple retraction of the
information. Alternate explanations should be provide as well. It is also
critical that these alternatives are provided at the point of retraction, to
ensure the target audience can immediately begin to integrate the information
with their existing representation of the event.