a publication of the behavioral science & policy association 85
Making the truth stick & the myths fade:
Lessons from cognitive psychology
Norbert Schwarz, Eryn Newman, & William Leach
Summary. Erroneous beliefs are dicult to correct. Worse, popular
correction strategies, such as the myth-versus-fact article format, may
backﬁre because they subtly reinforce the myths through repetition and
further increase the spread and acceptance of misinformation. Here we
identify ﬁve key criteria people employ as they evaluate the truth of a
statement: They assess general acceptance by others, gauge the amount
of supporting evidence, determine its compatibility with their beliefs, assess
the general coherence of the statement, and judge the credibility of the
source of the information. In assessing these ﬁve criteria, people can actively
seek additional information (an eortful analytic strategy) or attend to the
subjective experience of easy mental processing—what psychologists call
ﬂuent processing—and simply draw conclusions on the basis of what feels
right (a less eortful intuitive strategy). Throughout this truth-evaluation
eort, ﬂuent processing can facilitate acceptance of the statement: When
thoughts ﬂow smoothly, people nod along. Unfortunately, many correction
strategies inadvertently make the false information more easily acceptable
by, for example, repeating it or illustrating it with anecdotes and pictures.
This, ironically, increases the likelihood that the false information the
communicator wanted to debunk will be believed later. A more promising
correction strategy is to focus on making the true information as easy to
process as possible. We review recent research and oer recommendations
for more eective presentation and correction strategies.
Back in 2000, ﬂesh-eating bananas were on the********
loose and wreaking havoc, according to trending
Internet reports. The story claimed that exported
Schwarz, N., Newman, E., & Leach, W. (2016). Making the truth stick
& the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology. Behavioral
Science & Policy, 2(1), pp. 85–95.
bananas contained necrotizing bacteria that could
infect consumers after they had eaten the fruit. It was
a hoax, but one with such legs of believability that the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) set
up a hotline to counter the misinformation and assure
concerned fruit lovers that bananas were perfectly safe.
The Los Angeles Times even ran an article explaining the
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86 behavioral science & policy | volume 2 issue 1 2016
origin of the myth, noting that the hoax gained traction
because a secretary from the University of California,
Riverside’s agricultural college forwarded the story to
friends in an e-mail, seemingly giving it the imprimatur
of the college. Paradoxically, the eorts by the CDC
and the Los Angeles Times to dispel the myth actually
increased some people’s acceptance of it, presumably
because these trustworthy sources had taken the time
and eort to address the “problem.” These correc-
tions likely made the myth more familiar and prob-
ably helped the myth and its variants to persist for the
No one doubts that the Internet can spread misinfor-
mation, but when such falsehoods go beyond banana
hoaxes and into the health care realm, they have the
potential to do serious harm. For example, websites
abound that mischaracterize the scientiﬁc evidence and
misstate the safety of vaccines, such as that they cause
infection that can be passed on;2 that falsely claim a
certain kind of diet can beat back cancer, such as claims
that drinking red wine can prevent breast cancer;3 and
that overstate preliminary associations between certain
foods and healthful outcomes, such as that eating
grapefruit burns fat.4 These erroneous statements can
cause people to modify their behaviors—perhaps in a
detrimental fashion—aecting what they eat and how
they seek medical care.
The persistence of the necrotizing banana myth
shows that correcting false beliefs is dicult and that
correction attempts often fail because addressing
misinformation actually gives it more airtime, increasing
its familiarity and making it seem even more believable.5
For instance, one of the most frequently used correc-
tion strategies, the myth-versus-fact format, can back-
ﬁre because of repetition of the myth, leaving people
all the more convinced that their erroneous beliefs are
correct.6 The simple repetition of a falsehood, even by a
questionable source, can lead people to actually believe
the lie. The psychological research showing how people
determine whether something is likely to be true has
important implications for health communication strat-
egies and can help point to more ecient approaches
to disseminating well-established truths in general.
Overall, behavioral research shows that often the best
strategy in the ﬁght against misinformation is to paint a
vivid and easily understood summation of the truthful
message one wishes to impart instead of drawing
further attention to false information.
The Big Five Questions We Ask to Evaluate Truth
When people encounter a claim, they tend to evaluate
its truth by focusing on a limited number of criteria.7
Most of the time, they ask themselves at least one of ﬁve
questions (see Table 1).
1. Social Consensus: Do Others Believe It?
In 1954, the American social psychologist Leon Fest-
inger theorized that when the truth is unclear, people
often turn to social consensus as a gauge for what is
likely to be correct.8 After all, if many people believe
a claim, then there is probably something to it. A fun
example of this is played out on the popular TV show
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? where, when stumped
for the correct answer to a question, the contestant may
poll the audience to see if there is a consensus answer.
Overall, people are more conﬁdent in their beliefs
if others share them,9,10 trust their memories more
if others remember an event the same way,11,12 and
are more inclined to believe scientiﬁc theories if a
consensus among scientists exists.13
To verify a statement’s social consensus, people
may turn to opinion polls, databases, or other external
resources. Alternatively, they may simply ask themselves
how often they have heard this belief. Chances are that
a person is more frequently exposed to widely shared
beliefs than to beliefs that are held by few others, so
frequency of exposure should be a good gauge for a
belief’s popularity. Unfortunately, people are bad at
tracking how often they have heard something and
from whom; instead, people rely on whether a message
feels familiar. This reliance gives small but vocal groups
a great advantage: The more often they repeat their
message, the more familiar it feels, leaving the impres-
sion that many people share the opinion.
For example, Kimberlee Weaver of Virginia Poly-
technic Institute and her colleagues showed study
participants a group discussion regarding public space.14
The discussion presented the opinion that open spaces
are desirable because they provide the community with
opportunities for outdoor recreation. Participants heard
the opinion either once or thrice, with a crucial dier-
ence: In one condition, three dierent people oered
the opinion, whereas in the other condition, the same
person repeated the opinion three times. Not surpris-
ingly, participants thought that the opinion had broader
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a publication of the behavioral science & policy association 87
support when three speakers oered it than when only
one speaker did. But hearing the same statement three
times from the same person was almost as inﬂuential
as hearing it from three separate speakers, proving that
a single repetitive voice can sound like a chorus.14,15
These ﬁndings also suggest that the frequent repetition
of the same sound bite in TV news or ads may give the
message a familiarity that makes viewers overestimate
its popularity. This is also the case on social media,
where the same message keeps showing up as friends
and friends of friends like it and repost it, resulting in
many exposures within a network.
2. Support: Is There Much Evidence to Substantiate It?
When a large body of evidence supports a position,
people are likely to trust it and believe that it is true.
They can ﬁnd this evidence through a deliberate search
by looking for evidence in peer-reviewed scientiﬁc
articles, reading substantiated news reports, or even
combing their own memories. But people can also take
a less taxing, speedier approach by making a judgment
on the basis of how easy it is to retrieve or obtain some
pieces of evidence. After all, the more evidence exists,
the easier it should be to think of some. Indeed, when
recalling evidence feels dicult, people conclude that
there is less of it, regardless of how much information
they actually remember. In one 1993 study,16 Fritz Strack
and Sabine Stepper, then of the University of Mannheim
in Germany, asked participants to recall ﬁve instances in
which they behaved very assertively. To induce a feeling
of diculty, some were asked to furrow their eyebrows,
an expression often associated with dicult tasks. When
later asked how assertive they are, those who had to
furrow their eyebrows judged themselves to be less
assertive than did those who did not have to furrow their
brows. Even though both groups recalled ﬁve examples
of their own assertive behavior, they arrived at dierent
conclusions when recall felt dicult.
In fact, the feeling of diculty can even override
the implications of coming up with a larger number of
examples. In another study,17 participants recalled just a
few or many examples of their own assertive behavior.
Whereas participants reported that recalling a few
examples was easy, they reported that recalling many
examples was dicult. As a result, those who remem-
bered more examples of their own assertiveness subse-
quently judged themselves to be less assertive than did
those who had to recall only a few examples. The di-
culty of bringing many examples to mind undermined
the examples’ inﬂuence.
These ﬁndings have important implications for
correction strategies. From a rational perspective,
thinking of many examples or arguments should be
more persuasive than thinking of only a few. Hence,
correction strategies often encourage people to think
of reasons why an erroneous or potentially erro-
neous belief may not hold.18 But the more people try
to do so, the harder it feels, leaving them all the more
convinced that their belief is correct.6 For example, in
Table 1. Five criteria people use for judging truth
Criteria Analytic evaluation Intuitive evaluation
Social consensus: Do others believe it? Search databases, look for supporting
statistics, or poll a group or audience.
Does it feel familiar?
Support: Is there much supporting
Look for corroborating evidence in
peer-reviewed scientiﬁc articles or news
reports, or use one’s own memory.
Is the evidence easy to generate or recall?
Consistency: Is it compatible with what I
Recall one’s own general knowledge and
assess the match or mismatch with new
Does it make me stumble? Is it dicult to
process, or does it feel right?
Coherence: Does it tell a good story? Do the elements of the story logically ﬁt
Does the story ﬂow smoothly?
Credibility: Does it come from a credible
Is the source an expert? Does the source
have a competing interest?
Does this source seem familiar and
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88 behavioral science & policy | volume 2 issue 1 2016
a study described in an article published in the Journal
of Experimental Psychology; Learning , Memory, and
Cognition, participants read a short description of a
historic battle in Nepal.19 Some read that the British army
won the battle, and others read that the Nepal Gurkhas
won the battle. Next, they had to think about how the
battle could have resulted in a dierent outcome. Some
had to list only two reasons for a dierent outcome,
whereas others had to list 10. Although participants in
the latter group came up with many more reasons than
did those in the former group for why the battle could
have had a dierent result, they nevertheless thought
that an alternative outcome was less likely. Such ﬁndings
illustrate why people are unlikely to believe evidence
that they ﬁnd dicult to retrieve or generate: A couple
of arguments that readily pop into the head are more
compelling than many arguments that were hard to
think of. As a result, simple and memorable claims have
an advantage over considerations of a more compli-
cated notion or reality.
3. Consistency: Is It Compatible with What I Believe?
People are inclined to believe things that are consis-
tent with their own beliefs and knowledge.20 –22 One
obvious way to assess belief consistency would be to
recall general knowledge and assess its match with new
information. For example, if you heard someone claim
that vaccinations cause autism, you may check that
claim against what you already know about vaccina-
tions. But again, reliance on one’s feelings while thinking
about the new information provides an easier route to
assessing consistency. When something is inconsistent
with existing beliefs, people tend to stumble—they take
longer to read it and have trouble processing it.23–2 5
Moreover, information that is inconsistent with one’s
beliefs produces a negative aective response, as shown
in research on cognitive consistency since the 1950s.26,27
Either of these experiences can signal that something
does not feel right, which may prompt more critical
thought and analysis.
In contrast, when the new information matches
one’s beliefs, processing is easy, and people tend to
nod along. As an example, suppose you are asked,
“How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the
ark?” Most people answer “two” despite knowing that
the biblical actor was Noah, not Moses28—the biblically
themed question feels familiar, and people focus on
what they are asked about (how many?) rather than
the background details (who). But when the question
is printed in a dicult-to-read font that impedes easy
processing, the words do not ﬂow as smoothly. Now
something seems to feel wrong, and more people
notice the error embedded in the question.29
4. Coherence: Does It Tell a Good Story?
When details are presented as part of a narrative and
individual elements ﬁt together in a coherent frame,
people are more likely to think it is true.3 0,31 For instance,
in a 1992 article about juror decision making, Nancy
Pennington and Reid Hastie of the University of Colo-
rado described experiments in which they asked
volunteers to render verdicts after reading transcripts
of cases consisting of several witness statements. The
researchers varied the way information was presented:
Either evidence was blocked so that all of the evidence
(across several witnesses) regarding motive appeared
as a summary, or it was presented more like a story, as
witness narratives. The researchers found that people
tended to believe the witnesses more when the same
evidence was presented in the format of a coherentstory.
In fact, when asked to remember a story, people often
remember it in ways that make it more coherent, even
ﬁlling in gaps and changing elements.32 Maryanne Garry
of the University of Wellington in New Zealand and her
colleagues had volunteers watch a video of a woman
making a sandwich. Although participants probably
thought they saw the whole video, certain parts of the
sandwich-making process were not shown. In a later
memory test, participants conﬁdently but falsely remem-
bered events they had never witnessed in thevideo.
When a story feels coherent, people think that it
makes more sense, and they enjoy reading it more.33,34
Coherent stories ﬂow more smoothly and are easier to
process than incoherent stories with internal contra-
dictions are.30 There are several ways to increase the
chances that readers will feel as though they are reading
a coherent story. For example, in one line of studies,
Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld of the
University of California, San Diego, gave some partici-
pants summary information that enabled them to antic-
ipate a story’s ending before they began to read it. After
reading, those who had the extra information said they
enjoyed the story more—having some prior context lent
the story more coherence and made it easier to follow.
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5. Credibility: Does It Come from a Credible Source?
Not surprisingly, people are more likely to accept infor-
mation from a credible source than from a less credible
one.35,36 People evaluate the credibility of a source in
many ways, such as by looking at the source’s expertise,
past statements, and likely motives. Alternatively, people
can again consult their feelings about the source. When
they do so, the apparent familiarity of the source looms
large. Repeatedly seeing a face is enough to increase
perceptions of honesty, sincerity, and general agree-
ment with what that person says.3 7,3 8 Even the ease of
pronouncing the speaker’s name inﬂuences credibility:
When a person’s name is easy to say, people are more
likely to believe what they hear from the person.39 Thus,
a source can seem credible simply because the person
An exception to this rule is when people realize that
the person seems familiar for a bad reason. For example,
although the name Adolf Hitler is familiar and easy to
pronounce, it does not lend credibility. Similarly, famil-
iarity is unlikely to enhance the credibility of a source
that is closely identiﬁed with a view that one strongly
opposes, as might happen if the source is a politi-
cian from an opposing party. (See the sidebar Political
Messages from the Other Side.) In these cases, familiarity
with the source comes with additional information that
serves as a warning signal and prompts closer scrutiny.
A source also seems more credible when the
message is easy to process. For example, people are
more likely to believe statements when they are made
in a familiar and easy-to-understand accent rather
than a dicult-to-understand one. In a 2010 study, for
instance, Shin Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar of the University
of Chicago asked native speakers of American English to
rate the veracity of trivia statements (such as “A girae
can go longer without water than a camel can”). Volun-
teers rated statements recited by native English speakers
more truthful than statements recited by speakers of
accented English (whose native tongues included Polish,
Turkish, Italian, and Korean).40
Summary of Truth Evaluation
Regardless of which truth criteria people draw on, easily
processed information enjoys an advantage over infor-
mation that is dicult to process: It feels more familiar,
widely held, internally consistent, compatible with one’s
beliefs, and likely to have come from a credible source.
In short, easy processing gives folks an intuitive feeling
of believability and helps pass the Big Five major truth
criteria tests outlined above.7 Put simply, when thought
ﬂows smoothly, people tend to accept them without
analyzing them too closely.
Alternatively, information that is dicult to process,
feels unfamiliar, and makes people stumble is more
likely to trigger critical analysis. When something feels
wrong, people pay closer attention, look for more rele-
vant information, and are willing to invest more eort
into ﬁguring out what is likely to be true. People are
Political Messages from the Other Side
Messages from the other side of a political debate
rarely change partisan minds. The ﬁve truth tests
discussed in the main text shed some light on why.
To begin with, a message from a political opponent
comes from a source that one has already identiﬁed
as being associated with other interests, thus limiting
its credibility. Moreover, its content is likely to be at
odds with several of one’s beliefs. Accordingly, thinking
of many arguments that support a message from
the other side is dicult, but coming up with many
counterarguments is easy. In addition, opposing beliefs
interfere with the processing of the information, so
arguments will not seem to ﬂow smoothly. This limits
the perceived coherence of the message—it is just
not a good story. Finally, one’s own social network is
unlikely to agree with other-side messages, thus limiting
perceived social consensus as well.
As a result, messages that contradict a person’s worldview
and advocate opposing positions are unlikely to feel true
and compelling to that person. This eect is not just
evidence for the stubbornness of partisans but inherent
in how people gauge truth: The dominant truth criteria
inherently place beliefs of the other side at a disadvantage.
However, the other side’s messages may gain in
acceptance as time passes. For example, election
campaigns expose all citizens to messages that are
closely linked to partisan sources. Yet, as time goes by,
the speciﬁc source will be forgotten, but the message
may feel ﬂuent and familiar when it is encountered after
the campaign is over. That is, although one may reject a
message from the other side at ﬁrst, the message itself
may seem more plausible later on, when the original
source cannot be remembered. At that point, it may
receive less scrutiny, and people may nod along because
of the ﬂuency resulting from previous encounters.
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90 behavioral science & policy | volume 2 issue 1 2016
also more likely to notice misleading questions and to
critically examine their own beliefs.7, 2 9, 41 If their crit-
ical analysis reveals something faulty, they will reject
the message. But if the arguments hold up to scrutiny,
a message that initially felt wrong may end up being
persuasive. Nevertheless, in most cases, recipients
will conclude that a message that feels wrong is not
compelling. After all, at ﬁrst glance, it did not meet the
Big Five truth criteria discussed above.
Repeating False Information: A Bad Idea
The reviewed research sheds light on why some correc-
tion strategies may unintentionally cement the ideas
they are trying to correct: When a correction attempt
increases the ease with which the false claim can be
processed, it also increases the odds that the false
claimfeels true when it is encountered again at a later
point in time.
Repetition Increases Acceptance
The popular strategy of juxtaposing myths and facts
necessarily involves a repetition of the false claims
(or myths) in order to confront them with the facts. A
growing number of studies show that this strategy can
have unintended consequences: increasing the accep-
tance of false beliefs, spreading them to new segments
of the population, and creating the perception that
the false beliefs are widely shared. For example, in a
2005 study,42 Ian Skurnik of the University of Toronto
and his colleagues had participants view health- related
statements. They told them which ones were true
and which were false. When participants were tested
immediately, they were able to recall this information
from memory and could distinguish fact from ﬁction.
But 3 days later, after their memories had a chance to
fade, participants were more likely to think that any
statement they had seen was true, whether it had been
presented as true or false. Moreover, the acceptance
of false statements increased with the number of
warnings: Participants who had been told thrice that
a statement was false were more likely to accept it as
true than were those who had only been told once.
Older participants were particularly vulnerable to this
bias, presumably because their poorer memory made
it harder to remember the details of what they had
Fluency: When It Is Easy, It Seems Familiar, and Familiar Feels True
Any mental act, from reading and hearing to remembering and evaluating, can feel easy or dicult. Material that is easy
to process feels ﬂuent, in contrast to material that is dicult to process, which may make the reader stumble. People are
sensitive to these feelings but not to where they come from. For example, familiar material is easier to read than unfamiliar
material is, but not everything that is easy to read is also familiar.
Many things can inﬂuence the feeling of ﬂuency. Inﬂuences include presentation characteristics, such as print font, color
contrast, or a speaker’s accent, and content characteristics, such as the complexity and ﬂow of an argument. They also include
the receiver’s expertise and history with the material, such as how often one has seen it before and how long ago onesaw it.
When any of these factors make processing easy, they increase the likelihood that a message is accepted as true. Hence,
people are more likely to consider a statement true when it is presented, for example, in high color contrast, in a more simple
font or in a rhyming form.A,B
More likely to be judged true: Less likely to be judged true:
Orsono is a city in Chile Orsono is a city in Chile
Orsono is a city in Chile Orsono is city in Chile
Woes unite foes Woes unite enemies
A. Reber, R., & Schwar z, N. (1999). Eects of perceptual ﬂuency on judgments of truth. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 338–342.
B. McGlone, M. S., & Toﬁghbakhsh, J. (2000). Birds of a feather ﬂock conjointly (?): Rhyme as reason in aphorisms. Psychological Science, 11,
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Startlingly, it takes neither 3 days nor old age for such
a paradoxical eect to occur. When undergraduates
viewed a myths-and-facts ﬂyer about the ﬂu taken from
the CDC website, they remembered some myths as
facts after only 30 minutes.6 Moreover, despite the ﬂyer’s
promotion of the ﬂu vaccine for their age group, partic-
ipants who had read the myths-and-facts ﬂyer reported
lower intentions to get a ﬂu vaccination than did partic-
ipants who read only the facts. Worse, their reported
intentions to get vaccinated were even lower than those
of control participants who had not been exposed to
any message about the ﬂu. Apparently, realizing there
might be some controversy about the issue was su-
cient to undermine healthy intentions.
Repetition Spreads Misinformation to New Audiences
Myths typically take root in a small segment of the
population, yet sometimes a myth breaks free and
spreads to larger audiences. Ironically, the cause of the
spread may be education campaigns. Although one
may hope that the clear juxtaposition of myth and fact
teaches the new audience what’s right and wrong and
inoculates them against later misinformation, this is not
always the case. Instead, a well-intentioned information
campaign may have the unfortunate eect of spreading
false beliefs to a broader population.
The ﬂesh-eating bananas rumor is an example. It
moved from the fringes of the Internet to mainstream
media after the CDC published its correction, which
was picked up by the Los Angeles Times. After a while,
people misremembered the sources of the correction
as the sources of the false information itself, resulting
in the impression that ﬂesh-eating bananas are a real
problem.43 This retrospective attribution of a myth to a
more credible source goes beyond the more common
observation that messages initially seen as unconvincing
because they come from an untrustworthy source can
exert an inﬂuence later on, once their source is forgotten
(a phenomenon known as the sleeper eect).44,45
Myth-Busting Can Convey Controversy
The popular myth-versus-fact formats also convey the
impression that a signiﬁcant number of people hold a
dierent position or positions on an issue, or else there
would be no reason to juxtapose myths and facts. So
although the myth-versus-fact format may increase
readership and engagement, it also can make a topic
seem controversial and render the truth unclear. It tells
people that either side could be right and can make a
vocal minority seem larger than it is. People with limited
expertise in an area are therefore likely to defer judg-
ment and hesitate to take sides. This is particularly likely
in scientiﬁc controversies, where the facts are dicult
for the public to evaluate, as is the case with certain
dietary approaches or health treatments4 as well as for
climate change.13,46 The strategy of emphasizing contro-
versy to engage readers is problematic when the actual
facts have been well demonstrated, because it under-
mines the credibility of the facts and facilitates overesti-
mates of the disagreement.
Anecdotes and Photographs Reinforce the Message
Anecdotes and photos serve several communicative
goals—they capture attention, boost comprehension,
and enhance the readability of associated text.47– 49 This
makes the content easier to imagine, which can artiﬁ-
cially boost its perceived truth.50
Anecdotes promote understanding because they
link new information with prior knowledge and evoke
vivid pictures in people’s minds. For these reasons, they
can have powerful eects on people’s beliefs, leading
them to ignore available statistics and scientiﬁc facts
and use feelings and intuition as measures by which to
evaluate information. In 2005, Angela Fagerlin, now at
the University of Michigan, and her colleagues asked
study volunteers to read a scenario about angina and
to choose between bypass surgery and balloon angio-
plasty. They tended to overlook statistical data about the
cure rates and instead choose the option that included
anecdotes of those who underwent that procedure.51
Photos can produce similar eects, even when
they have no probative value for the claim with which
they are paired. In one experiment conducted by Eryn
Newman of the University of Southern California and
colleagues,50 participants in New Zealand were shown
Participants who had been told thrice that a
statement was false were more likely to accept it as
true than were those who had only been told once.
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92 behavioral science & policy | volume 2 issue 1 2016
a picture of Nick Cave, a musician with the Australian
band the Bad Seeds. When the photo accompanied the
claim “Nick Cave is alive,” people were more likely to
agree that he is, indeed, alive than when no photo was
presented. But the same photo also made people more
likely to think that Nick Cave is dead when the photo
accompanied the claim “Nick Cave is dead.” (For the
record, Nick Cave is alive as of this writing.)
Other more superﬁcial communication approaches
can produce similar eects. For example, rhyme
can enhance memory for material by serving as a
mnemonic device. But rhyme can also enhance the
credibility of a message, even if it does not add any
supporting evidence, by making words ﬂow smoothly. In
2000, Mathew McGlone and Jessica Toﬁghbakhsh, then
of Lafayette College, asked study participants to eval-
uate sayings about human behavior and rate the truth
of each saying. When the sayings rhymed (for example,
“Woes unite foes”), people were more likely to think they
were true representations of human conduct than when
the sayings did not (“Woes unite enemies”).52
In sum, anecdotes, pictures, and rhymes that contain
little informational value are usually oered to engage
readers. But they can nevertheless inﬂuence outcomes
because they scaold mental imagery, increase the ease
with which a message is processed, produce a feeling of
remembering, and systematically bias people to believe
information whether it is true or false. For that reason,
these communication devices can thwart the intended
educational eect when they are presented with false
information; we therefore discourage their use when
written content contains myths or retractions.
Key Communication Strategies for
Making Truths Stick and Myths Fade
So how can one correct false beliefs and increase public
knowledge without propagating misinformation? The
available research indicates that information is more
likely to stick the more easily it can be processed and
the more familiar it feels. Accordingly, the overarching
goal for any communication strategy is to increase the
ﬂuency and familiarity of correct information and to
decrease the ﬂuency and familiarity of misinformation.
Attempts at correcting misinformation—for example,
using the myth-versus-fact setup—often fail because
they center on the false information and unintention-
ally increase the ease with which false information can
be processed when it is encountered again. Increasing
the ﬂuency and familiarity of true information can be
achieved in three key ways.
The ﬁrst way is through repetition—speciﬁcally,
repetition of the correct information, not the misinfor-
mation one wants to undermine. For this reason, it is
usually better to ignore false information than to repeat
it. The popular myth-versus-fact format unwittingly
reinforces the myths by repeating them, which makes
them more inﬂuential once memory for the less familiar
(and often more complex) facts fades. Focus rather on
the facts, making them easy to understand and easy
to remember. Instead of repeating various vaccina-
tion myths, for example, a more eective strategy is to
document why vaccinations are safe and to emphasize
Photographs and Truthiness
Messages or claims that appear with photos catch
the eye and generally are more easily understood and
remembered. But adding a photo to claims can also
add authority: People are more likely to think claims are
true when they appear with a photo. Photos have this
inﬂuence even when they provide no probative evidence
about whether the claim is correct. For instance, people
are more likely to believe the claim “Magnesium is the
liquid metal inside a thermometer” when they see a
photo of a thermometer, even one that provides no
information regarding what metal can be found inside.
(Most household glass thermometers use alcohol with
red dye.) One reason why photos bring about this
truthiness eect is that they make it easy for the reader
to understand and imagine the claim. As a result, the
claim feels ﬂuent, familiar, and true.
Want to convince people that Nick Cave is dead or Nick
Cave is alive? Easy. Just add his picture to either claim
and voila! People believe.
(For more information on the
experiment that investigated
this scenario, see “Nonprobative
Photographs (or Words) Inﬂate
Truthiness,” by E. J. Newman,
M. Garr y, D. M. Bernstein, J.
Kantner, and D. S. Lindsay, 2012,
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,
19, 969–974 .)
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a publication of the behavioral science & policy association 93
the scientiﬁc evidence that vaccines promote health
and not harm.
Sometimes there are legal requirements to repeat
false information in the context of a correction. In
such cases, it is important to provide a ﬂuent and
coherent account of why the false information was
presented to begin with. Consider the myth that autism
is caused by childhood vaccines. A straightforward,
easy-to-comprehend account of how the discovery of
an alleged autism–vaccine link was completely made
up and based on fraudulent data that cost the principal
author his professional license will be more eective
in addressing the misinformation than simply labeling
the original myth discredited, as many news outlets
Second, true information needs to be made as acces-
sible as possible. Unfortunately, the truth is often more
complicated than the myth, which usually involves
considerable simpliﬁcation. This puts the truth at a
disadvantage because it is harder to process, under-
stand, and remember. Presenting true information
in ways that make processing it as easy as possible is
therefore important. This requires clear, step-by-step
exposition and the avoidance of jargon. Other more
cosmetic changes can also make the truth easily digest-
ible—choosing an easy-to-read font and ensuring the
speaker’s pronunciation is easy to understand can
increase the ﬂuency of a message. It also helps when
the true information is accompanied by pictures that
make the information easy to imagine or when key parts
of the repeated message rhyme.
Finally, at the individual level, one of the most
powerful strategies for avoiding misinformation is to
know it is coming.5 In one study, Stephan Lewandowsky
of the University of Bristol and his colleagues asked
participants to read a short description about a bus
accident. After reading the passage, participants were
told that some of the information was wrong. Despite
the retractions, many participants held on to the inaccu-
rate details that they learned from the initial description
of the bus accident. That is, once the story was told, it
was dicult to cleave out inaccuracies.
Two strategies can eectively prevent such miscon-
ceptions. One is to provide accurate details that present
an alternative account of the misinformation, increasing
the chances of people remembering the true informa-
tion and allowing the false details to fade away. The
second is to warn people before they read the passage
about the inﬂuence of misinformation. Pre-exposure
warnings can alert people to carefully scrutinize the
content of information and ward o false details.53–56
Although research shows that warnings are more
ecient when they are received prior to the false infor-
mation, this is not where they are commonly placed.
In the health domain, the law requires that labels
claiming unsubstantiated health beneﬁts must include
a disclaimer: “This product is not intended to diagnose,
treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”57 Such disclaimers
commonly follow the unsubstantiated claims. Moving
them to the top of a label or the beginning of radio
advertisement is likely to enhance their impact.
In sum, the available research shows that highlighting
false information and then attempting to unwind its
eects is usually a bad idea. More promising communi-
cation strategies focus on the truth, making it easier to
process and more handily remembered, which increases
the chance that the correct message sticks.
Schwarz, Department of Psychology, University of
Southern California; Newman, Dornsife Mind and
Society Center, University of Southern California; Leach,
Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern
California. Corresponding author’s e-mail: norbert.
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