Political Scientist Brendan Nyhan '00 Tackles False Beliefs in Latest Study

Brendan Nyhan '00
Brendan Nyhan '00 says his interest in false beliefs dates back to the Presidential election in early 2000, when he was a senior at Swarthmore.

The New Yorker: I Don't Want to be Right

Last month, Brendan Nyhan ['00], a professor of political science at Dartmouth, published the results of a study that he and a team of pediatricians and political scientists had been working on for three years. They had followed a group of almost 2000 parents, all of whom had at least one child under the age of 17, to test a simple relationship: Could various pro-vaccination campaigns change parental attitudes toward vaccines?

Each household received one of four messages: a leaflet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that there had been no evidence linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine and autism; a leaflet from the Vaccine Information Statement on the dangers of the diseases that the M.M.R. vaccine prevents; photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases; and a dramatic story from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about an infant who almost died of measles. A control group did not receive any information at all. The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. The first leaflet-focused on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism-seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. The other two interventions fared even worse: the images of sick children increased the belief that vaccines cause autism, while the dramatic narrative somehow managed to increase beliefs about the dangers of vaccines. "It's depressing," Nyhan said. "We were definitely depressed," he repeated, after a pause. ...

Nyhan's interest in false beliefs dates back to early 2000, when he was a senior at Swarthmore. It was the middle of a messy Presidential campaign, and he was studying the intricacies of political science. "The 2000 campaign was something of a fact-free zone," he said. Along with two classmates, Nyhan decided to try to create a forum dedicated to debunking political lies. The result was Spinsanity, a fact-checking site that presaged venues like PolitiFact and the Annenberg Policy Center's factcheck.org. For four years, the trio plugged along. Their work was popular - it was syndicated by Salon and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and it led to a best-selling book - but the errors persisted. And so Nyhan, who had already enrolled in a doctorate program in political science at Duke, left Spinsanity behind to focus on what he now sees as the more pressing issue: If factual correction is ineffective, how can you make people change their misperceptions? The 2014 vaccine study was part of a series of experiments designed to answer the question. ...

It's the realization that persistently false beliefs stem from issues closely tied to our conception of self that prompted Nyhan and his colleagues to look at less traditional methods of rectifying misinformation. Rather than correcting or augmenting facts, they decided to target people's beliefs about themselves. In a series of studies that they've just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior. For example, when women are asked to state their gender before taking a math or science test, they end up performing worse than if no such statement appears, conforming their behavior to societal beliefs about female math-and-science ability. To address this so-called stereotype threat, Steele proposes an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. Steele's research suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing, be it on an S.A.T., an I.Q. test, or at a book-club meeting.

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented-that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.

Still, as Nyhan is the first to admit, it's hardly a solution that can be applied easily outside the lab. "People don't just go around writing essays about a time they felt good about themselves," he said. And who knows how long the effect lasts-it's not as though we often think good thoughts and then go on to debate climate change. ...

The message can't change unless the perceived consensus among figures we see as opinion and thought leaders changes first.

And that, ultimately, is the final, big piece of the puzzle: the cross-party, cross-platform unification of the country's élites, those we perceive as opinion leaders, can make it possible for messages to spread broadly. The campaign against smoking is one of the most successful public-interest fact-checking operations in history. But, if smoking were just for Republicans or Democrats, change would have been far more unlikely. It's only after ideology is put to the side that a message itself can change, so that it becomes decoupled from notions of self-perception.

Vaccines, fortunately, aren't political. "They're not inherently linked to ideology," Nyhan said. "And that's good. That means we can get to a consensus." Ignoring vaccination, after all, can make people of every political party, and every religion, just as sick.

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An honors polticial science major and economics minor while at Swarthmore, Brendan Nyhan '00 is an author, political columnist, media critic, and assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. He has written about this study for The Upshot, a new website from The New York Times where he is a contributor; reports have also appeared in Bloomberg View and Grist. You can follow Nyhan at his blog, brendan-nyhan.com, and on Twitter, @BrendanNyhan.