Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach

From the WashPost, 2 weeks ago:
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine."

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.

The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.
I can understand why someone might think that the CDC says that only older people need flu vaccine. The official CDC website recommends:
People who should get vaccinated each year are:

1. People at high risk for complications from the flu, including:
* Children aged 6 months until their 5th birthday,
* Pregnant women,
* People 50 years of age and older, and
* People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions;
* People who live in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.

2. People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu ...
While this includes kids under 5, and flu is on the separate CDC schedule for childhood vaccinations, it is not required for school and the CDC has not pushed for that. Saying that only older people need flu vaccine is a reasonable first approximation to the CDC recommendations.

The Iraq example is even more strained. Those who frequently deny any connection between 9/11 and Iraq are usually promoting their own myths. They want us to believe that the 9/11 attack was just an isolated criminal act, and the only appropriate response is to arrest and prosecute those who were directly responsible. If the guilty parties are all dead, then they'll want us to just forget about it and hope that it doesn't happen again.

The WashPost seems to just want to promote the myth that Pres. Bush lied about Iraq and 9/11. If it really wanted to do some honest debunking, then it would have addresses what Bush really said.

There are lots of myths that seem to persist in the face of others trying to debunk the myths. I am not sure yet whether this is a psychological defect of the human mind. In some cases, the myths have a germ of truth, and the debunkers refuse to address the true aspect of the myth for some ideological reason.

You can find Schwarz's paper here.

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