Instead of refuting misinformation head-on, try ‘bypassing’ it

A new study from PIK Professor Dolores Albarracín has found that redirecting an individual’s attention away from misinformation and toward other beliefs can be just as effective as debunking it.

It’s tempting to argue with someone who is misinformed by showing them studies and articles that prove they’re wrong. But new research shows that there’s another, less confrontational, way to get someone to change their mind.

Dolores Albarracín
Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Dolores Albarracín is the Alexandra Heyman Nash University Professor, director of the Social Action Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication, and the director of the Science of Science Communication Division at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. (Image: Courtesy of the School of Arts & Sciences)

A new study in Scientific Reports, led by Dolores Albarracín, a social psychologist who specializes in attitudes and persuasion, and the Alexandra Heyman Nash Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor, has found that “bypassing” misinformation is just as effective as debunking it head-on.

This way requires considering what conclusions one wants their audience to reach—is it that vaccines are safe? Or that genetically modified foods are something to support?—and supporting those conclusions with positive facts the audience may not have considered.

In the paper, Albarracín—director of the Science of Science Communication division at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and a faculty member at the Annenberg School for Communication, the School of Nursing, and the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences—and co-author Christopher Calabrese, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at APPC and now assistant professor at Clemson University, propose bypassing as a new method for addressing the outcomes of misinformation.

The bypassing strategy involves identifying a conclusion, such as “vaccines are safe,” and figuring out how to bolster that conclusion with accurate information that doesn’t directly refute misinformed claims.

“There’s this perceived pressure to go out and debunk misinformation, but we can also strengthen other beliefs and consider misinformation within the wider system of beliefs people hold,” Albarracín says. “Bypassing allows you to work from the point of view of what conclusion you want—highlighting beliefs that support it instead of focusing solely on contradicting the misinformation.”

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.