Kaveh Moravej

Why Corrections Fail

"If you get more stubborn every time you are corrected, one day you will be crushed and never recover."

-Proverbs 29 (GNT)


Imagine for a moment a world in which any and all disputed or incorrect information that people came across could be highlighted with corrections provided in real-time. If you think this sounds like an ideal way to prevent the spread of false information, then think again.

Evidence continues to add up that people are incredibly stubborn when it comes to correcting their beliefs in line with reality, particularly if they feel strongly enough about a certain issue.

In a recent study led by R. Kelly Garrett (Assistant Professor of Communication at Ohio State University), 574 subjects were tested to discover whether instant online corrections would have any role in dispelling false beliefs. What they discovered was that those who hold a strong opinion on a certain issue are in fact likely to ignore corrections and discount the credibility of the source.

"Humans aren?t vessels into which you can just pour accurate information."

-Kelly Garrett


In another earlier study carried out by Brendan Nyhan (RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research - University of Michigan) and Jason Reifler (Assistant Professor of Political Science - Georgia State University), it was discovered that not only do corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among such individuals, but that corrections may actually increase misperceptions.

Their study also drew on "an extensive literature in psychology that shows humans are goaldirected information processors who tend to evaluate information with a directional bias toward reinforcing their pre-existing views," while disparaging those that contradict their views.

Further adding to this problem is that the more information becomes processed, the less likely we are to believe it. Whereas direct observation can increase the probability of information being accepted as valid, with a greater number of intermediaries there comes a greater likelihood of doubts being raised on the quality and legitimacy of that information. This becomes a significant problem in a world where we now rarely receive information through direct observations - adding to the probability of corrective information being resisted.

"People tend to resist unwelcome information because it is threatening to their worldview or self-concept."

-Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler


In support of these points, I have previously referred to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget's model of learning and how instead of absorbing information in our environment we are merely exposed to it. Piaget's assimilation model makes clear that it is not simply the information that is presented that counts, but rather the interpretation of that information.

Many of us assume that we would be immune to the pitfalls that arise from such cognitive biases, but as history has shown, even senior decision-makers at the highest echelons of business and government are prone to making similar analytical errors, often with disastrous consequences. It is precisely for this very reason that I repeatedly stress that senior decision-makers in most organisations should be provided with a minimum standard of analytical training that reduces the probability for such misjudgements.

Put simply, all commercial intelligence and knowledge management efforts are made in vain when the final link in that chain, the human decision-maker, interprets information in a way that is disconnected from reality.

Analytical proficiency requires not only training and awareness of the cognitive models through which we interpret information, but also its full integration in business processes. By doing so we create an environment which systematically questions our assumptions and considers alternative explanations, thereby increasing the likelihood that the right decisions are ultimately made.