Consider the Source

With the Party conventions dominating the news this week and next, I’ve been reading pieces that address how beliefs are influenced. An op-ed article from the New York Times in June, titled “Your Brain Lies to You”, discusses the phenomenon known as source amnesia. Here’s an excerpt:

The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

Evidently this effect gets worse with time as the information is processed:

A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength.

Hence the magic of the first impression and why it is so coveted by political strategists.  As long as a statement is initially memorable, there’s a decent chance that its source will eventually be forgotten and what was at first a noncredible statement can become a credible one.  This is also why it may not be a good idea to attempt to combat a false rumor by addressing it–and thus repeating it–in public. The research suggests that the more times the message is repeated, the more likely it will be remembered, but its source forgotten.  

On top of that, we are all more likely to select information that jibes with our worldview.

Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

So the bias begins before we start listening, even if we eventually can’t remember where we received the information – though are certain it must be true.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Consider the Source

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