Longtime blogger Brendan Nyhan, who’s just finished a Ph.D. from Duke, has released a fascinating working paper from a study he led while there. It concludes, essentially, that it’s very, very difficult to get those people who believe that President Obama is a Muslim to believe the truth.
Even when the researchers tried what they feel is a better way to correct people, it still wasn’t effective — that is, unless the person telling the subject about Obama’s Christianity was non-white. Nyhan and his co-authors write:
One explanation for this difficulty is that corrections frequently take the form of a negation (i.e. “Tom is not sick”), a construction that may fail to reduce the association between the subject and the concept being negated. We apply this approach to the persistent rumor from the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama is a Muslim, comparing the effectiveness of what we call a misperception negation (“I am not and never have been of the Muslim faith”) with what we call a corrective affirmation (“I am a Christian”), which should be more effective. As expected, we find that the misperception negation was ineffective. However, our hypothesis that the corrective affirmation would successfully reduce misperceptions was only supported when a non-white experimental administrator was present, suggesting a strong social desirability effect on the acceptance of corrective information. In addition, three-way interactions between the corrective affirmation, race of administrator, and party identification suggest that social desirability effects were more prevalent among Republicans. When nonwhite administrators were absent, the corrective affirmation not only failed to reduce Republican misperceptions but caused a backfire effect in which GOP identifiers became more likely to believe Obama is Muslim and less likely to believe he was being honest about his religion.
Obviously, this sort of thing is pretty disheartening for a reporter to read, as it’s yet another bit of evidence to suggest efforts to find and print the truth in the face of myths and lies aren’t particularly effective. For me, though, it’s really interesting, especially as I’ve been continuing to follow the Birthers, whose ability to hold on to that particular myth about Obama is pretty astounding, and have been marveling at the way that movement has continued and has remained impervious to — even scornful of — the facts. The ways in which the brain works aren’t always good for society, but they sure are amazing.