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Convictions and Corrections

by Florian Roetzer Wednesday, Jun. 15, 2005 at 10:19 AM

The psychologists' report concluded that people ignore corrections irrespective of the certainty that a news report was notorious. The truth is unimportant. Whether something fits and confirms the worldview is decisive.


With media reports on the 2003 Iraq war, psychologists show that convictions are always immune to corrections

By Florian Roetzer

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis 5/20/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Perhaps people deal with the truth as with love at first sight. What they see first is hardly questioned any more. Instead future information serves to confirm the original perception. This was the conclusion of psychologists in a study on media reports on the Iraq war.

The study “Memory for Fact, Fiction and Misinformation: The Iraq War 2006 (1) published in the current edition of the journal Psychological Science (2) started from the assumption that the reporting about the Iraq war was marked by false information, corrections and retractions of news. Again and again there were reports about the discovery of weapons of mass destruction allegedly in Iraq that regularly proved false and were usually explicitly withdrawn.

Stephen Lewandowsky and Werner G.K. Stritzke of the University of Western Australia, Klaus Oberauer of the University of Potsdam and Michael Moralis of Pittsburgh State University of New York asked students at five universities in Australia, Germany and the US how corrections of reports from the middle of April to the beginning of May affected the remembrance of war events communicated by the media. They made statements to the students about true events (for example, a 19-year old female US prisoner of war was rescued from an Iraqi hospital by Special Forces and flown out of Iraq for medical treatment), events first presented as facts and then described as false [Allied POWs (Prisoners of War) were executed by the Iraqis after being captured and/or surrendering) and freely invented events that could be regarded as plausible under the conditions (captured Iraqi militia led allied forces to a store of plastic explosives fitted inside bicycle frames to be detonated by suicide bombers at allied checkpoints). The students were asked how they remembered the events.

People hold to remembrances even when these later turn out false so far as these were first presented as facts and the correction did not go along with an alternative interpretation. This was true above all for the American students. Reports about false information were accepted more readily by German and Australian students. The scientists assumed additional confirming reports strengthened these convictions and pseudo-remembrances for persons like the American students who were convinced of the legitimacy of the war while new news reports correcting the information did not lead to any changes in attitudes. The opposite effect occurred for persons who were critically disposed to the war like many Germans and Australians.

“Persons who were skeptical about the motives behind the war could see false information as untrue while those who assumed that the war was waged to destroy weapons of mass destruction did not regard the original version of the events proven false as untrue. Because they were less distrustful, respondents in the US did not respect the corrections of false information as much as respondents in Australia and Germany.


The resistance to news that refutes the original convictions seems deep-seated and points to a cognitive dissonance. The researchers report that practically all the interviewed persons correctly said that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. However “a considerable minority of Americans” has a pseudo-remembrance. This confirms the conclusion of another analysis and “explains” how a government can stay in power although it manipulates the truth [Bush-followers fade out reality (3)]. One only needs to be fast enough to be the first to publish an assertion even if the assertion was long refuted.

Students in countries with great skepticism also start from the truth of the news and accept this news even when it proves false. One submits to the presumed majority and follows the conformity pressure that leads to a selective acceptance and valuation of information.

Psychologists focus their attention on the formation of false remembrances. They draw the following conclusions from their study. Even after they are refuted as false, the repetition of media reports contributes to the formation of false remembrances. The second conclusion that corrections do not change convictions when people are trustful seems doubtful. This is also a self-reinforcing mechanism that refuses unprejudiced enlightenment. The third conclusion is that people ignore corrections irrespective of the certainty that a news report was untruthful. The truth is unimportant, one must say. Whether something fits and confirms the worldview is decisive.

All the excitement over the Newsweek article is completely absurd. Whether it was true or not that copies of the Koran were flushed down the toilet in interrogations in Guantanamo, everyone is confirmed in his or her view of things. For one, it is evidence for the crusade against Islam and repression of Moslems in Guantanamo and elsewhere. For the others, it was a hoax or false report that denigrates the reputation of the US for no reason. There is only a third position for outside observers – at least if it is true that people in principle are immune toward the truth when it opposes their conviction.

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