The Familiarity Backfire effect: Do not insert myth here

The Problem With Polls About Whether Obama Is a Muslim

By asking voters what they think about the president’s religion, pollsters help to perpetuate a falsehood.

Liberal blogs and sites are having a field day with new data from Public Policy Polling that shows that 52 percent of Mississippi Republican believe President Obama is a Muslim (a comparatively slight 45 percent of Alabama GOP voters agreed with them). Huffington Post had a banner headline Monday morning branding it a “SHOCK POLL,” Talking Points Memo smirked at those southern bumpkins, and Daily Kos deadpanned, “Alabama and Mississippi Republicans don’t believe in evolution … but do believe Obama is a Muslim.”

PPP, which is a Democratic firm, is sometimes maligned for being an unreliable pollster, but in this case the biggest problem is that they’re asking the question at all. The belief that Obama is a Muslim, like the belief that he is somehow not an American citizen, is pernicious and flatly wrong. It has also been rejected by the vast majority of the American body politic, although there are some glaring examples of politicians who flirt with it to score political points. But if the goal is to fight mistaken beliefs, this is the wrong way to do it. The Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has researched misperceptions and conspiracy-theory belief in America politics. In particular, he and colleague Jason Reifler have found that false ideas, once introduced, are very hard to get rid of. One especially bad way to fight them is to reiterate them…

Source: The Atlantic

This is known as the “familiarity backfire” effect. It also occurred perniciously during the second Gulf war when Saddam Hussein had (not) something to do with it and we had (not) found weapons of mass destruction.

I blame the media.

Here at DN, we try to not reinforce the myths by doing our best to give titles that are least likely to reinforce the myth. It’s hard because you have to describe the situation in some way but you never know what people will take away from the story. However, if they see a word associated with the story, like SOLVED or BUSTED or “declared a HOAX”, they may remember that association. But it’s no guarantee. Maybe the best way is to not mention the myth at all but try to portray the information associated with it in a valid way. That might not work either.

  4 comments for “The Familiarity Backfire effect: Do not insert myth here

  1. Massaschusetts
    March 14, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    According to the article they may not be true false beliefs. People are saying they believe he’s a muslim as a way of expressing their dislike and lodging a kind of symbolic protest against his policies, which they probably view as hurting the country and strengthening its enemies. So it’s a way to insult or bash him, but they don’t necessarily literally believe he’s a muslim.

    So, how do you distinguish between people who truly believe he’s a closet muslim and people who are just using this as a tool to express their discontent?

    • March 14, 2012 at 5:36 PM

      This is why social science is SO difficult. “People” are really complex and you can’t isolate factors in order to determine just what is causing the effect (would be unethical at the least but difficult, if not impossible). Plus, when you rely on someone to be an observer of themselves (like in a survey), they are not objective. < — I just realized how self-obvious that was. :-P

  2. Massachusetts
    March 16, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    Yes! Yesterday I went to the post office and there was a guy with a table outside and posters with images of President Obama but sporting a Hitler-style mustache. He shouted “Help us impeach Obama!” As I walked by. I considered asking him if he reaaaaally though Obama was a Nazi, but I predicted it would get ugly so I just said “No thank you” and walked by. I think there’s no way I’d likely get a straight answer from that guy. So it’s all interpretation in the end, which is certainly not an exact science. That said, regarding social science, I always enjoyed anthropology, and think if more politicians studied it seriously the world would be a better place. And I believe history is technically a social science. And certainly a knowledge of history is great (yet interpretation issues abound in that field.) Interesting!

  3. March 18, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    So ignore it and it will go away? Assume that crazy beliefs are only limited to a few, and surely they can’t be held by large numbers?

    Surely that makes sense.

    The catchphrase of this site is “People do believe this stuff.”

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