Monday, September 10, 2007

Psychology, the Petreaus Report, and How Fox News Works

On the eve of the widely trumpeted Petreaus report, it is worth noting some of the findings reported in The Washington Post by Shankar Vedantum last week. It turns out that Joseph Goebbels' famous quotation "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it," is only the tip of the iceberg. It not only turns out that it is absolutely true that if you hear a falsehood often enough you will tend to believe it, but it is sometimes enough that the falsehood be accessible. As Norbert Schwarz writes,

"This fluency-familiarity link has important consequences for judgement and decision-making. As Festinger observed, under conditions of uncertainty, we often resort to 'secondary reality tests,' using apparent social consensus as a criterion of truth. In fact, repeated exposure to a statement, reliably increases its acceptance as true, as first observed by Allport and Lepkin in a classic study on rumor control. However, repeated exposures are not required to make a statement 'feel' familiar. Instead, any variable that increases the ease with which the statement can be processed is sufficient to do the trick. For example, we observed that a given statement was more likely to be accepted as true when the color in which it was printed made it easier to read."
So make something false easy to read, add a swoosh or a silly USA Today graphic around it and, bam, you've got belief.

Even if the person knows that the source of the information is not a credible one, the repetition is effective.
Furthermore, a new experiment by Kimberlee Weaver at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and others shows that hearing the same thing over and over again from one source can have the same effect as hearing that thing from many different people -- the brain gets tricked into thinking it has heard a piece of information from multiple, independent sources, even when it has not. Weaver's study was published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The experiments by Weaver, Schwarz and others illustrate another basic property of the mind -- it is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something. People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true, said Schwarz.
Think having FoxNews on in the background in various public venues is harmless?

But it gets worse. The Enlightenment naivete in us tells us to debunk the myth and all will be well. Show why it is false. Proclaim loudly that it is false and, the reasonable animals that we are, we will reject the falsehood and embrace the truth. Sadly, no.

It turns out that debunking the myth actually reinforces it. By saying, "It is false that x," you repeat x. This repetition makes x more familiar and after some time, the "not" becomes inoperative leaving the falsehood. From Vendantum
The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.
By presenting reasoned arguments undermining the veracity of a claim, you are not destroying the basis for belief, but actually reinforcing it. The rational vaccine is not protection from, but actually is a vector in spreading the irrational disease.

So we've had several reports come out in the last couple of weeks showing that there has been no progress in quelling the overall level of violence in Iraq, yet Petreus has been claiming the opposite. He claims of a 75% decrease in killings,
General Petraeus told The Australian during a face-to-face interview at his Baghdad headquarters there had been a 75 per cent reduction in religious and ethnic killings in the capital between December last year and this month, a doubling in the seizure of insurgents' weapons caches between January and August, a rise in the number of al-Qa'ida "kills and captures" and a fall in the number of coalition deaths from roadside bombings.
Turns out that the 75% figure is not last year compared to this year, but December 2006 (a spike in killings) compared to April of this year. Not only apples and oranges in terms of the calendar year's trends, but killings went back up in May and then down in June-July. Further, the numbers were cooked by creatively defining "sectarian killings," if a victim was shot in the back of the head, the killing was sectarian; if shot in the front of the head, the killing was deemed criminal violence and not counted.

So we've got a source who has clearly been less than acceptable in terms of veracity. Yet, his words will not only be broadcast, but rebroadcast over and over again. The analysis may debunk large chunks of it, exposing it as propaganda, but as we now see, that won't do much but further entrench it. And to put the cherry on top, where is General Petraeus going immediately after his testimony before Congress? He's giving an exclusive one hour interview with Fox News. I wonder why...