Why is it so hard for people to change their beliefs?
Being corrected doesn’t lead us to change. It only strengthens our belief in the original falsehood.
The science shows that we are not only bad at remaining skeptical, we’re bad at correcting our beliefs when they’re proven wrong. In a University of Michigan study called “When Corrections Fail,” political scholars Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler coined a phrase for it: the “backfire effect.” 3 After showing subjects a fake news article, half of the participants were provided with a correction at the bottom discrediting a central claim in the article— just like one you might see at the bottom of a blog post. All of the subjects were then asked to rate their beliefs about the claims in the article.
Those who saw the correction were, in fact, more likely to believe the initial claim than those who did not. And they held this belief more confidently than their peers. In other words, corrections not only don’t fix the error— they backfire and make misperception worse.
What happens is that the correction actually reintroduces the claim into the reader’s mind and forces them to run it back through their mental processes. Instead of prompting them to discard the old thought, as intended, corrections appear to tighten their mind’s grip on the now disputed fact.
In this light, I have always found it ironic that the name for the Wall Street Journal corrections section is “Corrections & Amplifications.”* If only they knew that corrections actually are amplifications.