Dispelling Rumors and Myths–why it is so tricky

September 5, 2007

Thanks to our good friend Eric Holdeman, I read this article about the persistence of myths by Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post in the Sept 4 edition. If you are in communications, you NEED to read this article.

It will make you rethink how you need to respond to rumors, misinformation and false accusations–a topic that was discussed at my presentation with the Midwest ISO today.

A few key points in case you don’t read it:

– False statements will be remembered as true even when you say they are false. (“I am not a crook” turned out to be essentially heard and remembered as “I am a crook.” That’s why, as Eric points out, don’t deny a rumor by saying “Despite the accusations I did not beat my wife,” you should say, “I love my wife.” Don’t repeat the false information in its false form or you will be seen as the source of the false information and it will be believed as true. If you don’t believe me, read the article.

This may lead you conclude, reasonably, that when confronted with a myth, accusation or misinformation, it is better to ignore it. Not true. Here’s one quote from the article: “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. “

But the problem is that “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.” The research demonstrates that. “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. “

So, if you deny a rumor by repeating it, you are in trouble. If you do not deny it, you are in trouble. It sounds like the only response to this is have a consistent, powerful, positive message that contradicts the false information and is repeated until you are ready to go nuts.

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