Busting the use of mythbusting.

Backfire Effect is still all the rage, and so I thought it worthwhile delving into a kind of ‘subset’ within this area of research… that of using mythbusting as a tactic, when trying to change minds of those opposed to you.

I first learned to be wary of the more traditional ‘mythbusting’ style communications pieces several years ago – as health professionals and experts started to notice that the classic flyers or pamphlets outlining ‘common myths’ around things like flu, or vaccines, weren’t really working all that well. People were still believing the myths and so these myths perpetuated.

What do I mean?

The classic format of ‘you may have heard that [inserts applicable myth and misconception here], however the facts are actually [inserts evidence-based tidbit to counter original myth]’. Sometimes you get websites or pamphlets listing ’10 common myths around [insert relevant issue of contention]’ which then repeats this technique multiple times down the page. Why do it once, when you can do it lots?

The short of it is, this tactic has now been more often recognised as one that backfires and instead reinforces the myths themselves.

There’s a few reasons for this. We like short-cuts. We spend most of our days using short-cuts in our minds to make quick decisions, and this makes sense – because we cannot agonise over every single thing (do I want plain M&Ms or is now the time to branch out and try new flavours… the struggle is real, people). It just isn’t efficient. Sure – some decisions require a bit of agonising, analysing and evaluating – but even then we still tend to fall back on a few things to help inform our decision. One of these things is how often we’ve heard something.

Now if you’re someone who has heard the myth a fair few times, then one of those short-cuts is purely relying on that feeling that ‘well, I’ve heard of that before… in fact, I may have heard it quite a few times…’. And surely where there’s smoke, there’s fire, yeah? There must be some truth to it if everyone keeps saying it and repeating it. We are all guilty of this, even those of us who consider ourselves high reflective and cautious about everything. We still have this occurring in our skulls.

So now when we reintroduce the brochure, flyer or website that – often in big bold letters – restates the myth we’d heard somewhere, sometime in the past…well, you can start to understand why that big myth statement being re-read again actually just reinforces the myth itself, strengthening it in the reader’s mind before they’ve even begun to digest the evidence to counter it. Repeating myths in the hope of then correcting them just isn’t efficient communication. Add to that the fact that often these communication pieces then provide longer-answers to counter the shorter, memorable myths – and it is natural that the reader will still more quickly recall the myth before the counter-evidence. Repetition of a myth makes it more familiar. Making it more familiar is not what we want as the outcome. There have been some neat studies highlighting this very effect.

Sometimes when presented with the counter-facts, the reader may accept that they were wrong, but still have that uncomfortable sensation and feeling linked to the whole thing now, which they often want to avoid*. It’s almost like our brains sometimes don’t want to believe the truth… which comes back to the motivated reasoning and skepticism I wrote about earlier in the year.

So how do we tackle this and avoid contributing to the creation of some hideous mega-myth-monster that cannot be overcome…? When they go low, go high. Don’t get sucked in to debates countering myths. Instead – the better tactic is to just purely present the facts as they are. You don’t need to coat them in the myths they’re debunking, just present the facts as they are, and in a memorable, easily digestible statement. And if your heart is set on a bold font typeface – then use it on that!


PS. *Our reluctance to believe facts even we do rationally accept them to be what they are – i.e. facts – and the effect of Motivated Reasoning is also linked a fair bit to our desire to belong to a tribe or group. We’re a social species after all and sometimes changing our minds to accept new facts can threaten our membership in a particular cohort or tribe. There’s more about this here at the Financial Times. But maybe get some plain M&Ms first…. it’s a big article and one that may require emotional eating accompanying it.


PPS. Am also hilariously conscious of the fact that the structure of this article potentially counteracts the advice it provides. For those who were perceptive, I explained (and potentially reinforced) the use of myths first, before countering it with lengthy evidence countering the technique. Perhaps the more apt way of writing this post would have begun with the statement ‘ just stick to the facts’ and I would never have mentioned myths at all…. we have gone so very meta- just now. I need a lie down.