Persuasion, Zest

Correcting Misinformation and Misconceptions

I’ve lost count of the number of videos we’ve produced over the years that have in large part been designed to help businesses dispel misconceptions amongst staff and customers. To be honest, I never even started counting those videos and if I led you to believe I’m the kind of person who would do that then I’m guilty of leaving you with a misconception. See how easy it is?

They Think What!?

People believe all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff and its part of what makes humanity so endlessly fascinating. But, when the things people believe gets in the way of your job then you need to do something about it. Before we look at the best ways to combat misinformation and misconceptions we should find out how and why they happen.  
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Bigfoot Hunters. Who needs evidence?
(Picture: Morgan Mathews/BBC) 

We Love a Good Story

Who doesn’t love a good gossip? And the juicier the better, right? We love to hear tales that make us shocked, outraged or really happy – anything that provokes a strong emotion is going to get and keep our attention.

On the flip side the less dramatic stories which, while probably more likely to be factually correct, are not as emotionally engaging - therefore less interesting to us and so don’t tend to get shared as much.

If we want to be thought of as an interesting person (and who doesn’t?) we have a tendency to embellish what we’re saying and make it more dramatic. How often do you hear shocking office gossip only to later discover that the truth is much more mundane? (Although when we meet remind me to tell you about Debs, one of our former editors…)

It’s the same for your business - staff get wind of a new initiative and all sorts of rumours start to spread about what’s being planned and what it’ll mean. But if we know people have a tendency to exaggerate or even make stuff up why do we believe them?
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Helen's gossiping was always scarily intense

Our Brain's Shortcuts

The world is a complicated place and our brains have to process lots of information quickly. To cut down the workload we employ quick mental short cuts to help it decide what is and isn't important. Psychologists call these Heuristics - simple, efficient rules which people often use to form judgments and make decisions. These mental shortcuts usually involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others. When it comes to believing information our brains ask the following questions:

Does it feel right to me?
We believe what we want to. It’s a simple as that. It’s called Confirmation Bias

If we hear or see something that confirms what we already suspect about those people or that business or whatever it is we don’t particularly feel the need to challenge or doubt it. It just reinforces our existing beliefs and makes us feel good that we were right to think that in the first place.
Does it make sense to me?

Our brains like simplicity. So, if what we are hearing is easy to understand quickly we have more tendency to believe it. It’s why politicians use soundbites and why tabloid newspapers reduce complex issues to simple black and white. The more complex the issue the more likely we are to defend our inability to understand by dismissing it as a lie. 
Is it coming from a credible source?

Do we trust the person telling us this? Do they seem to be authoritative? It’s one reason why when people are relating gossip they heard they will usually tell you where the rumour originally came from to give it authority.
What do others think?

We like to belong. We have our tribes, us and them. If we think others believe something is true – especially if the agree with us about other things, or we see them somehow as on our side - then we are much more willing to believe this new information.

It’s easy to see how misinformation can spread around a business, amongst disgruntled staff or unsatisfied customers. But we should be able to dispel the misconceptions by showing or telling people the truth, right? If only it were that simple.

You see, it seems that even when something is shown to be false some people will still believe it!
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The Flat Earth Society has 420 members
(Picture: Jaguar Land Rover) 

True Believers

Sometimes people will maintain a believe despite getting new information that contradicts it. 

In fact, depending on how much their belief means to that person they may become even more convinced when confronted with contradictory evidence. For example a study found that when patients who were most concerned that flu jabs caused flu were told it couldn't cause flu they became even more convinced that it could. 

And it makes sense. When your sense of self and your worldview are challenged, you need to have a defense mechanism in place. It’s much easier to say ‘This information is wrong’ than to say, ‘How I view the world turned out not to be correct,’” 

Like it or not, our brain plays tricks on us. And repetition of a myth is often what makes it feel true. Some myths like “spinach is especially rich in iron”; “it’s dangerous to swim after eating” and “we lose 70% of our body heat through our head in winter” and "don't swim for 20 minutes after eating" before swimming – have been repeated so often we can’t help feeling there must be some truth to it. 

The same goes for misinformation in your business.

Imagine a new CEO is soon to join your company and a rumour starts going around the office that she likes to wield the axe. The last company she was in she got rid of 30% of her management team. That’s why she’s being brought in here. Why else?

A memo goes around to quell this rumour and explain that a couple of people were let go at her last company but that wasn’t her decision and she has not been brought here to get rid of people.

Do you believe it? Be honest, is there some part of you deep down that is still suspicious? And when you get to meet her and she seems genuinely nice? Aren’t you still just a little wary? Ever heard the expression ‘no smoke without fire?’

How to Change Minds

Okay, so some people have some potentially harmful misconceptions about your business. We’ve looked at some of the things that can cause misconceptions but what we really need to know is how to get rid of them.

Fortunately for us, in a research paper from 2012 Professor Stephen Lewandowsky and several colleagues looked at the nature of misinformation in society and how to correct the believes arising from this. They identified a few psychological techniques that we can apply in a business situation.

Explain what went wrong

You can’t just tell people they’re wrong. Because, well, we don’t like to be told that. Instead tell us what happened, why and how that could have been misinterpreted. If you think the misinterpretation might have been deliberate you should also explain what you believe the motivation was for the original misinterpretation.
Keep it simple

As we know, people don’t like complexity. So when you are telling us why something happened and the motivation behind it don’t overload us with details. Keep it short and sweet. Just tell us what we need to know. 
If you repeat a lie often enough...
Don’t repeat the myth. Sometimes you might need to outline it once so people know what you’re talking about but be sure to preface it by letting them know that what you are about to say is misinformation. But once you’ve said it once don’t mention it again. If you remember the gist of an earlier paragraph, we tend to be better at remembering the gist of things than the details. 

Many studies have shown the old adage that ‘if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth’ has some psychological basis. Don’t repeat the myth.
And if you repeat the truth often enough…

The flip side of the coin on the repetition is that if you keep repeating the truth (what, why and how) - without repeating the myth - you are more likely to reinforce the version of events you want your audience to remember
Undermine credibility

People have complex reasons for believing certain things – including the credibility of the source of the misinformation so question where the misinformation came from. Encourage your audience to be skeptical about the source of the misinformation and remember it doesn’t hurt to reinforce what you suspect to be the motivation behind the misinformation.
Get onside

As we know people are more inclined to believe something if they think other like-minded people also believe it. In fact, we’re notoriously wrong at knowing what other people believe. 

You can use this trait to your advantage by showing how you are on their side while correcting their misconception “I really hate the way things have to keep changing but the fact is if we don’t reduce overheads now we won’t be able to compete”

Fight Fire With Fire

As you’ve probably worked out by now the techniques and psychological traits you can tap into to get rid of misinformation and misconceptions are basically the same techniques and psychological traits that created the misinformation and misconceptions in the first place! You’re transplanting one version of the truth with another. 

It’s not always a straight forward operation and, like any transplant, success isn’t guaranteed. But armed with these psychological tools you will have a much higher chance of persuading people of the truth.



Paul Brannigan

Paul is the founder and creative director of Nudj. He has many years experience working in business video and television. He is a Bafta nominated writer and director with a passion for psychology. He is also a trained hypnotist and always keeps a fob watch handy - you have been warned!