We recently posted on an interesting op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Your Brain Lies to You” by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt. Their op-ed discussed “source amnesia,” which refers to our brains’ tendency to remember information but not its source. Put another way, we are surprisingly prone to remembering that which we initially perceive as incredible, including satire and lies, as true.
Wang and Aamodt discussed source amnesia in the context of lies about Senator Barack Obama that a surprising number of Americans believes, such as the lie that he is Muslim when in fact he is Christian.
Given source amnesia, we can understand the Obama camp’s stern rebuke of the upcoming cover of the New Yorker.
FALSE beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way.
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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.
With time, this misremembering only gets worse. 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. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.
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Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter misinformation by pointing out that it is not true. But by repeating a false rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger. In its concerted effort to “stop the smears,” the Obama campaign may want to keep this in mind. Rather than emphasize that Mr. Obama is not a Muslim, for instance, it may be more effective to stress that he embraced Christianity as a young man.