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Why people believe false information and how to combat it, according to experts

Researchers say there are things you can do to help someone you care about who believes in misinformation.

Why people believe false information and how to combat it, according to experts
[Photo: drante/iStock]

My best friend from high school believes that President Biden is dead, and the guy in the White House is a doppelgänger. What do I say?

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My dad won’t get vaccinated because he thinks the shot is really a government tracking device. How can I convince him otherwise?

These are the types of questions Nika Kabiri, Ph.D., a decision science specialist and faculty member at the University of Washington, was being asked by people who didn’t know what to say to loved ones who believe misinformation.

“The tendency for conspiratorial thinking or misinformation has always been there,” she says. “Research suggests that there is a relationship between times of uncertainty, like economic stress and social or political upheaval, and the prevalence and intensity of conspiracy theories. This makes sense from a behavioral science perspective. The less certainty there is, the more anxiety there is, the more people need to cling to some story to put their mind at ease. That’s why misinformation is such a problem now.”

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It can also create tension in relationships. What do you do if you don’t want to divorce yourself from people who believe and spread bad theories?

While you may believe the adage, “you can’t change others; you can only change yourself,” Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson, Ph.D, authors of You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees—Even Family—Up Their Game, say we change people all the time.

“You have conversations that spur people to change in certain ways,” says Bregman. “They decide on their own because it’s always their decision, but they wouldn’t have changed if not for the conversation you had. People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.”

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Change Your Mindset to Change Others

When we try to change others, our mistake is that we usually operate out of frustration, anger, and fear, which comes across as being critical. This approach will backfire, says Kabiri, who recently wrote the guide How to Change a Misinformed Mind.

“We push and expect a complete turnaround right away,” she says. “We think, ‘If I could only make this argument airtight, they could see my point of view and they would come around.’ In reality, minds aren’t changed that quickly and not forcefully.”

We also take on a dynamic of trying to fix them, adds Bregman. “We know more than they do,” he says. “That’s going to trigger whatever shame they have about their outcomes and behaviors, and they’re going to defend against it and deny there’s a problem and resist.”

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Stay Engaged

Kabiri recommends keeping the relationship positive by doing things that forge connections. “Most of our beliefs don’t come from reading raw data,” she says. “We believe what people we trust believe in. For example, I got vaccinated because I trust Dr. Fauci. If you are someone they don’t trust because you’re coming at them saying, ‘You’re so stupid. I can’t believe you’re thinking these things,’ you’ve lost that trust and have no hope.”

When we come at someone as a critic, we’re trying to take away their autonomy, says Jacobson. “We need to come at them as an ally, someone who has their best interests at heart, who’s curious about what they want, and who wants to help them get it,” he says. “We’re looking for an intersection, a shared outcome that we both want. That’s a safe place where you can begin to explore.”

When you start conversations, know that facts aren’t as effective as you may think. “For a lot of us who are into science, that’s our language,” says Kabiri. “But for a lot of people, the science doesn’t really register. What registers is stories, which is why conspiracy theories are so great—they’re fascinating stories. Creating doubt by telling stories—as opposed to creating tension with facts—is a better way to go, especially if your stories can eliminate whatever doubt still exists in them.”

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Stay Positive and Open

Also, watch your tone. “Our default is to go negative,” says Bregman. “Our default is to identify problems and say, ‘Let me tell you why this won’t work. Let me tell you why your ideas about this are wrong.’ Think about our country right now that’s so divisive. Everyone’s complaining. The frustration comes out of a place of care and good intent, and we need to get in touch with that, and the way you do that is by empathizing.”

For example, you can start a conversation by saying, “I really understand why this is such a struggle. I hear it in your voice. Would you be willing to think this through with me?”

“If they say ‘no,’ you’ve got to be okay with that,” says Bregman. “If I accept their ‘no,’ it increases the chances that they’ll trust me later.”

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When you try to change someone else, you need to go into the conversation being willing to be changed yourself. “Go in with the sense of wonder, not a game where you know everything and the other person knows nothing,” says Bregman. “You’ve got knowledge and they’ve got knowledge. Let’s figure this out together.”

Leadership isn’t dragging others where you want to go, adds Jacobson. “Facing your shortcomings is hard,” he says. “Trying new things that you’re unfamiliar with is hard. We want to model vulnerability. It’s a transfer of soul, in a sense.”

Misinformation is causing social distress and widespread health issues, and Kabiri says the stakes are too high for people to ignore opportunities to change others. “I think we have a responsibility,” she says. “My hope that people won’t let it go, even though that’s easier. I hope that they would look for small wins. It’s not all or nothing. Even if they never let go of the big lie, if they could just to admit that it’s possible, consider that a huge win, because that’s something you can build on.”

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