Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Psychology of Misinformation

By Ullrich Ecker

Misinformation affects our reasoning and decision-making. Unfortunately, a number of cognitive factors limit the effectiveness of retractions and refutations, ensuring that misinformation sticks.

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Misinformation may not a new problem, but the unprecedented access to information we enjoy in today’s “information society” has exacerbated its influence. People rely more and more on social media, blogs and (sometimes dubious) websites not only to get their daily news fix but also to get medical advice or information about scientific issues such as climate change.

To compete with the deluge of freely available information, traditional media also opt for sensationalised headlines as “click bait” designed to increase their web traffic and thus maintain their advertising revenue. Emotional and attention-grabbing: yes. Fact-checked: maybe not so much.

Moreover, the modern media’s fondness for “balanced” coverage – even in the absence of balanced evidence – contributes to the problem. For example, 97 % of active climate scientists agree – based on the available evidence – that humans are causing global warming, yet the Australian public believes there is still a scientific disagreement on the issue. Arguably, one of the reasons for this divide is that the media continues to give both sides of the public debate equal space (or air time).

Easy access to information is, of course, preferable to censorship and imposed restrictions. However, initial hopes that better access to information will lead to a better-informed public have been dampened. This is not...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.