Research & Insights

The Truth About Why Some People Believe Fiction Over Facts

A new study by researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Exeter found that people often believe fiction instead of fact because they let their ideological biases determine what they believe and what they reject as facts. Similarly, people who don’t strongly subscribe to a political ideology tend to be more accepting of facts that counter their beliefs.

To understand why and how people believe fiction over fact, researchers and 2015 frank prize finalists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler designed a series of experiments to measure how people process and understand new information. Participants were asked about their political leanings and were then quizzed on three topics: the insurgent attacks in Iraq after the 2006 “troop surge,” job creation in the United States under President Obama and global temperature changes.

The researchers found that very committed Republicans were unwilling to acknowledge that job creation had improved under President Obama’s leadership. The same went for dedicated Democrats, who were reluctant to credit President Bush’s troop surge with a reduction in insurgent attacks in Iraq.

“It is threatening for people to concede the validity of politically uncomfortable facts,” the researchers explain, “which hinders them from expressing belief in those facts even if they are at least tacitly aware of [the facts’] validity.”

Researchers also say the “findings suggest that many misinformed individuals may already be at least tacitly aware of the correct information but uncomfortable acknowledging it. In this sense, misperceptions are not just an information problem; the threatening nature of counter-attitudinal facts appears to inhibit people from acknowledging the true state of the evidence on controversial issues.”

But there is some positive news from the study. Nyhan and Reifler also found that presenting non-partisans with information about a topic–particularly in graphical form – can clear up some misinformation. Graphs and charts were particularly effective at combatting misinformation. Participants who were shown a graph detailing rising global temperatures were more likely to acknowledge a rise in global temperatures than participants who only read about the increase.

The research suggests that for the people who do not lean too far to either political side ideologically, incorporating graphs and visual information into communications strategies can help reduce misconceptions of social issues. “Our results show that delivering factual information in graphical form appears to be more effective than text at reducing misperceptions,” Nyhan and Reifler note. “While not every misperception can be represented graphically, these results suggest that journalists covering stories about change or trends where misperceptions are likely should consider using graphs in their stories.”

Submitted to American Journal of Political Science

Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College
Jason Reifler, University of Exeter

Posted: February 19, 2015
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