The Impotence of Information

The Impotence of Information

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Since people do not arrive at their opinions through careful consideration of factual information, more information will have little effect.

Would-be persuaders believe they will change people’s minds if they just provide them with the right evidence.  They won’t.

People form their opinions on the basis of feelings, associations, and the opinions of others.  People are remarkably immune to information that seeks to correct their misperceptions and change their opinion.

People are immune to contrary information because they ignore it.  They seek out information that reinforces their existing attitudes and avoid information that might undermine their existing attitudes, a phenomenon known as “Selective Exposure.”  Conservatives watch Fox news and liberals watch MSNBC because Fox news reinforces conservatives’ attitudes and MSNBC reinforces liberals’ attitudes.

Even when information does make it through Selective Exposure, people interpret that information to fit their preconceptions, a phenomenon known as “Selective Perception.”

Brendan Nyhan of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University, provide a demonstration of the power of Selective Perception (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/nyhan-reifler.pdf or Political Behavior, June 2010, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 303-330).   In their study, people were shown a misleading claim from a politician on one of three subjects and then factual information that corrected the claim.  The information was contained in mock news stories from A.P., the New York Times, or Fox News.

Nyhan and Reifler found that the corrective information, regardless of source, frequently failed to change people’s mind about the facts.  Sometimes the corrective information actually increased misperceptions among those whose erroneous opinions were most strongly held.

Factual information will not change opinion.  If the facts do not fit the opinion, the facts will be ignored or reinterpreted.

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