Facts and Myths about Misperceptions

Brendan Nyhan in the Journal of Economic Perspectives:

Misperceptions threaten to warp mass opinion and public policy on controversial issues in politics, science, and health. What explains the prevalence and persistence of these false and unsupported beliefs, which seem to be genuinely held by many people? Though limits on cognitive resources and attention play an important role, many of the most destructive misperceptions arise in domains where individuals have weak incentives to hold accurate beliefs and strong directional motivations to endorse beliefs that are consistent with a group identity such as partisanship. These tendencies are often exploited by elites who frequently create and amplify misperceptions to influence elections and public policy. Though evidence is lacking for claims of a “post-truth” era, changes in the speed with which false information travels and the extent to which it can find receptive audiences require new approaches to counter misinformation. Reducing the propagation and influence of false claims will require further efforts to inoculate people in advance of exposure (for example, media literacy), debunk false claims that are already salient or widespread (for example, fact-checking), reduce the prevalence of low-quality information (for example, changing social media algorithms), and discourage elites from promoting false information (for example, strengthening reputational sanctions).

Download PDF of the full paper here.