New study reveals the way we remember facts can spread misinformation

In the age of ‘fake news’ and misinformation, one would hope that we could rely at least rely on our own response to information. But, according to a recent study by Ohio State University, our ability to ascertain information is unreliable and often skewed. The study found that people given accurate statistics on a controversial issue tended to misremember those figures to comply with commonly held beliefs.  So much for self-reliance.

One example of this is best exemplified in nation-wide socio-political assumptions. When people are told that the number of Mexican immigrants in the US has declined in recent years (a fact) most claim the inverse to be true. This, the study postulates, is a result of people’s natural inclination to adopt the widely held belief system. 

A domino of disinformation

 To further complicate the matter, the study found that the spread of misinformation is exacerbated as it’s passed on to others. As the information moves from one receiver to the next, the information gets further and further from the truth — similarly to the game of ‘telephone’. 

“People can self-generate their own misinformation. It doesn’t all come from external sources,” said Jason Coronel, the lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

“They may not be doing it purposely, but their own biases can lead them astray. And the problem becomes larger when they share their self-generated misinformation with others.”

The first study: probable bias vs truth

In the first of the two studies, a group of 110 participants was presented with cursory written descriptions of four societal issues involving numerical data. The study considered four scenarios. The first two societal issues presented participants with factually accurate data that positively correlated with the commonly held viewpoint of the participants — for example, many people generally expect more Americans to support same-sex marriage than oppose it, which is affirmed in public opinion polls. 

The researchers also presented participants with two issues for which the numbers didn’t coincide with how most people viewed the topics. For example, most agree with the assumption that the number of Mexican immigrants in the US increased between the years 2007 and 2014. When, in fact, this figure dropped from 12.8 million in 2007 to 11.7 million in 2014. 

After reading the descriptions, the participants were then asked to jot down (from memory) the figure that they saw in the description of each social scenario. 

The researchers, as predicted, found that participants wrote down the correct data for the scenarios that coincided with popular opinion on the issue. (Participants wrote down a larger number for the percentage of people who supported same-sex marriage than for those who opposed it — a true relationship.)

However, the numbers that the participants jotted down from the scenario that went against popular opinion (whether the number of Mexican had risen or decreased), participants were way off from the actual figure — in this case, their probable biases eclipsed the truth.

Interestingly, some participants remembered the actual figures but inverted them to conform to their bias. 

“Their biases were leading them to misremember the direction they were going,” said Coronel. 

The second study: a game of “telephone”

If the results from the first study proved an individual involuntary inability to remain unbiased when absorbing factual data, the second study revealed how skewed this information becomes when passed along amongst a group of individuals. 

In the second study, the first person in the “telephone chain” was presented with accurate data on Mexican immigrants in the United States (the figure dropped from 12.8 million to 11.7 million). They then wrote down these figures from memory, and were asked to pass these numbers to the second person in the chain, who had to remember them and write them down, and so on and so forth until the chain was complete.

The results were shocking — on average, most of the initiators (first person to pass on the message), said that the number of Mexican immigrants actually increased by 900,000 from 2007 to 2014 rather than truth — that it dropped by 1.1 million.

The final verdict of the last person in the chain: the number of Mexican immigrants had increased in those 7 years by about 4.6 million. This drastic deviation from the given fact underlines the shaky terrain of both verbal and written communication amongst groups of people. 

Breaking the bias chain 

Before you discount every piece of information you’ve ever received from another individual, Shannon Poulson, one of the doctoral students who conducted the study, lends one sound piece of advice for consideration: 

“We need to realize that internal sources of misinformation can possibly be as significant as or more significant than external sources,” she said.