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by Anthony S. Ragusea, PsyD, ABPP

The psychology of mistaken beliefs

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The psychology of mistaken beliefs: “Many Americans apparently are convinced of a fact that it is utterly wrong.” says this article, referring to the idea that China owns over 50% of American debt and will use that leverage to somehow take over America. Here’s the terrible thing about the psychology of mistaken beliefs–by even mentioning this false belief, even though I clearly say it is FALSE, I will be inadvertently contributing to the perpetuation of the belief among people who read this. Why?Here’s how it may work–first, people are very prone to biases in their thinking, so we may be inclined to believe information that SEEMS true rather than IS true. Hearing about the rise of China’s wealth and power (true) lends more credence to the idea that China SEEMS to have more power over us, for example (not necessarily true). But we are also not very good at remembering context. So after reading this post, you may go about your day and much later on someone may say something to you about China owning 50% of America’s debt, and you may remember hearing something about that in the past, but you may not recall the context of that information, which in this case was a discussion of popular mistaken beliefs. All you may remember is that you heard it, not whether it was right or wrong. Therefore, you are more likely to agree with your mistaken friend, even though you were told that the information was false. This is why it can be so very hard to correct popular misconceptions, and why we need to hold our leaders and experts to very high standards of accuracy and truthfulness (I’m looking at you, Michele Bachmann). Once a mistaken belief gets out, it’s very hard to put away, because even if there is a concerted effort to correct the misinformation (think about all experts during the Ebola scare who came on TV to remind us that we’re not all going to die) it is of limited benefit because simply mentioning the false belief, in any context, puts it in peoples’ memory and makes them more likely to believe that information is true. Thus, the best way to correct popular misbeliefs is to not mention them at all, and only reference correct information. Speaking of which, China only owns about 10% of our public debt.

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by Anthony S. Ragusea, PsyD, ABPP