[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 17-May-2005
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Contact: Stephan Lewandowsky
lewan@psy.uwa.edu.au
Association for Psychological Science

Misinformation: Seeing is believing

On Sunday, Newsweek magazine retracted an earlier report that U.S. interrogators at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a copy of the Qur'an down a toilet. The initial report is credited with sparking deadly anti-American riots in Afghanistan and, as a result, the retraction has received widespread attention. But new research suggests that, even with a very public correction of the record, readers of the original report may continue to believe the now-discredited story.

The research, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society, suggests that once you've seen a news report, you may go on believing it, even if later information shows it to have been false.

Media coverage of the Iraq War has been characterized by frequent corrections, retractions, and false information, particularly in regards to weapons of mass destruction and treatment of coalition prisoners. New research conducted by Stephan Lewandowsky and Werner G.K. Stritzke, University of Western Australia; Klaus Oberauer, Universit├Ąt Potsdam; and Michael Morales, Plattsburgh State University of New York, investigated the effects that those retractions and disconfirmations had on people's memory of war-related events. The researchers concluded that repetition of news stories assisted in the creation of false memories and that corrected misinformation did not change people's beliefs unless they were skeptical of the information to begin with.

"We found that people suspicious of the motivations underlying the war successfully discounted misinformation, whereas those who thought the war was fought to destroy WMDs tended not to discount the original discredited version of events," the researchers stated. "Because they were less suspicious overall, participants in America showed less sensitivity to the correction of misinformation than those in Australia and Germany who were sensitive to corrections of misinformation."

Members of five university communities in two coalition countries (Australia and the United States) and one country opposed to the war (Germany) were questioned about their recollection of war-related events, rating each event on their memory of it and on its likelihood of being true. There were three types of critical items respondents were questioned about: true items, items presented as factual but later retracted, and fictional items that were "freely invented but plausible given the political circumstances." The results of the research showed that German and Australian respondents were sensitive to corrected information while Americans were not. This is especially evident when analyzing the data on WMDs. "Although all samples on average correctly indicated that no WMDs had been found in Iraq," the report states, "a substantial minority of Americans exhibited false memory that they were discovered."

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The research findings are presented in "Memory for Fact, Fiction, and Misinformation: The Iraq War 2003" in the March 2005 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

For more information, contact Professor Stephan Lewandowsky at lewan@psy.uwa.edu.au.

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.



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