Updating memory for fact and fiction

by David Stacey

Sunlight can make people sneeze. Sounds ludicrous? But it's true - it's called a photic sneeze reflex, and can occur in about one out of four people. Did you believe that fingerprints are unique to each individual? That, by contrast, is a myth - some fingerprints can be so similar that forensic experts assume they are a 'match' when they actually belong to different individuals.

We are exposed to an abundance of information, and sometimes it can be hard to tell fact from fiction. Researchers of the Cognitive Science Laboratory of The University of Western Australia are investigating how people process surprising facts and common myths. The team, led by Associate Professor Ullrich Ecker, is particularly interested in why common myths are so difficult to eradicate in society. For a current study, they are calling for volunteers over the age of 50 to help understand how people update their memory and beliefs regarding surprising facts and common myths.

Correcting common misconceptions can be extremely difficult, as retractions - simply stating that something is not true - are typically not very effective. In part, this could be because retractions repeat the myth in order to correct it. For example, stating that ' are not 100 per cent unique to each individual' repeats the association between 'fingerprints' and 'uniqueness', making this false link more familiar. This is problematic as people tend to assume that familiar information is true. Retractions can therefore ironically strengthen the misconceptions they are trying to correct. Older adults may be particularly susceptible to this effect, as memory for detail deteriorates with age, while familiarity-based memory does not.

A new study by Professor Ecker and his PhD student Briony Swire will explore how people process corrections of common myths and affirmations of surprising facts. Participants will be required to read various statements, both facts and myths, and rate how much they believe in each one. They will learn whether the statements were actually true or false before answering questions regarding the statements as well as re-rating their beliefs.

Related Stories

Four myths about privacy

date May 01, 2014

(Phys.org) —Many privacy discussions follow a similar pattern, and involve the same kinds of arguments. It's commonplace to hear that privacy is dead, that people—especially kids—don't care about privacy, that people ...

Defining allergy fact from fiction

date Nov 07, 2013

From gluten allergy and hypoallergenic pets, to avoiding the flu shot because of an egg allergy, there are a lot of common myths and misconceptions about allergies. Many might be shocking due to a great deal of false information ...

Tackling an 'abhorrent' crime

date Jun 10, 2014

Monash University research into filicide – where a parent kills their child – has been highlighted in a special edition of the prestigious UK journal Child Abuse Review.

Recommended for you

Videogames boost skills, but also harmful

date 10 hours ago

Good news and bad news for video gamers: new research shows game play boosts visual and cognitive skills, but that too much of the activity is linked to behavioral problems.

Depression often co-occurs with joint diseases

date 14 hours ago

Those suffering from depressive symptoms have an increased risk for physical diseases, especially for arthrosis and arthritis. These findings were reported by researchers from the University of Basel and ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ar18
Jul 23, 2014
Sometimes government organizations will step in and fuel the myths. For example, the CIA and UFOs, lie detectors, or the propaganda that wars can help men develop noble qualities like bravery or heroism in a way that no other thing can.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.