Author(s), Title and Publication
Green, M. C., & Donahue, J. K. (2011). Persistence of belief change in the face of deception: The effect of factual stories revealed to be false. Media Psychology, 14(3), 312-331.

Becoming immersed in a story can have powerful emotional and persuasive effects in changing readers’ story-relevant beliefs and attitudes. A psychological perspective on persuasion via fiction presumes that readers automatically believe every assertion they read, even if that information is explicitly labeled as false. Such belief occurs automatically and requires effortful correction to reject the falsehoods. When readers discover a story to be inaccurate, they may be motivated to correct for beliefs influenced by the narrative, but may not have the ability to do so because of belief perseverance and difficulty in constructing an alternative.

The primary focus of the present research was to determine the effect of reading a “factual” narrative and subsequently being informed that the narrative was actually inaccurate. The study compared intentional deception to instances of falsehood that did not carry the same moral implications: a fictional narrative and a narrative that contained unintentional errors. Results suggested that belief change influenced by the persuasive message could remain unaltered even if the source of the persuasion had been verified as accidentally or intentionally misleading. The derogation of the story source did not extend to correction of story-based beliefs. Similarly, evaluations of the characters in a story remained unaltered even in the face of the author’s deception. Results also suggested that while individuals attempted to correct for false information, they did not do so effectively.

In an experiment study (N = 160), the alleged truth status of a narrative was manipulated. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the four experimental conditions which presented a narrative that was 1) fictional (a socially accepted form of untruth); 2) factual, with participants subsequently being informed that it was inaccurate due to accidental error; 3) factual, with participants subsequently being informed that it was inaccurate due to intentional deception; and 4) control condition. Afterwards, participants were presented with the dependent measures including story specific belief measures, character evaluations, and Pinocchio circling, which was an indirect measure of correction attempts.

Key Findings

  • Belief perseverance was found among participants despite they were told the story was inaccurate due to intentional deception.
  • Participants’ opinion of the author dropped significantly in the intentional deception condition, however, their evaluations of the characters in the story remained unaltered.
  • Individuals attempted to correct false information but did not do so effectively.

Implications for Practice
This study, on the one hand, verified the effectiveness of narratives and storytelling in driving belief change. Comprehending information presented in a story often leads to automatic belief in that information. Such belief is usually quite perseverant: when individuals have created a causal structure to support their beliefs, they retain those beliefs even if they are informed that the initial information was incorrect. On the other hand, the study also yielded important ethical implications. While individuals who discover intentional deception are motivated to correct for misbeliefs, they may not have the ability to do so. Public relations professionals should use extra caution in creating narratives, as even accidental error will lead to derogation of the information source.

Location of Article
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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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