I came across an article the other day discussing a cognitive bias involving “familiarity” or truth vs. fiction. While the article (Seeing is Believing; how media myth busting can actually make false beliefs stronger” by Eryn Newman, Amy Dawel, Madeline Claire Jalbert and Norbert Schwarz posted on The Conversation, May 25, 2020) focuses on fact vs. fiction relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, its discussion about this cognitive bias has universal application.

The issue arises when news or other articles attempt to correct misinformation by stating the facts. Intuitively, we would think that the correction would work. However, in reality:

Cognitive science research shows people are biased to believe a claim if they have seen it before. Even seeing it once or twice may be enough to make the claim more credible.

This bias happens even when people originally think a claim is false, when the claim is not aligned with their own beliefs, and when it seems relatively implausible. What’s more, research shows thinking deeply or being smart does not make you immune to this cognitive bias.

The bias comes from the fact humans are very sensitive to familiarity, but we are not very good at tracking where the familiarity comes from, especially over time. (Id. at 3.)

The authors discuss a series of studies in which the participants were shown a series of facts vs. fiction relating to health claims and were asked to separate truth from fiction. At the time, they were able to accurately separate truth vs. fiction. But, then several days later, they were asked again, and because of the familiarity bias, the participants tended to accept the false claims as true. (Id.) And… this happened most frequently with senior citizens: “… the more often they were initially told a claim was false, the more they believed it to be true a few days later.” (Id. at 4.)

No doubt, we have all heard the adage that to get someone to remember something, one must repeat it three times. Well, the researchers found this to be true about misinformation:

For instance, hearing one person say the same thing three times is almost as effective in suggesting wide acceptance as hearing three different people each say it once.

The concern here is that repeated attempts at correcting a myth in media outlets might mistakenly lead people to believe it is widely accepted in the community. (Id. at 5.)

So, how does one “make the truth stick”? (Id.) Make the information vivid and understandable such as by using a photograph (“A picture is worth a thousand words”!), make it concrete and accessible and use “concrete language, repetition, and opportunities to connect information to personal experience” (Id.) All these tools will work against our “familiarity” bias.

A moment’s reflection reveals the application of the above to the world of disputes and conflict resolution. How many disputes/lawsuits have arisen because fact was not separated from fiction? Allegations are bandied about based on claims that later prove to be false but were alleged as true because they were repeated often enough and so must be true!

In short, this “familiarity” bias is probably one of the prime reasons conflict resolution resolvers are in business.

… Just something to think about.

I continue to be available for mediations using video conferencing and telephone.


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