ideas42’s network of academic affiliates represent some of the world’s foremost experts in behavioral science. With the ideas42 Affiliate Series, we invite leading scholars to share their insights and what inspires their exploration into human behavior.

Our New York office was pleased to host Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College today. Brendan’s research focuses on the spread and dynamics of misperceptions in politics and health. For this seminar, he presented his work on messaging interventions that attempted to correct false beliefs about vaccinations (e.g., flu, MMR) and consequently increase vaccine uptake. We learned how messaging can backfire in these contexts, and more broadly, how difficult it can be to quash myths about controversial political issues. After giving a talk to the ideas42 team, Brendan was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on behavioral science:

What drew you to the field of behavioral science?

I had been a political fact checker myself, so I wanted to understand how people made up their mind about controversial issues and whether giving them corrective information could change their minds. That led me to a series of studies of misperceptions and what we can do about them in both politics and health.

What’s one of the most surprising discoveries about human behavior?

The way that giving people corrective information can sometimes not only be ineffective, but counterproductive. It can actually make misperceptions worse rather than better which is not something I would’ve expected before I started doing this work.

Why is it so difficult to correct misperceptions on controversial issues?

The challenge in correcting misperceptions is that people are often drawing on strongly held views on politics, health, or aspects of their identity. Admitting that they’re wrong might threaten those views and that can often provoke a strong response when people try to defend some existing view they hold. In that process, they can actually come to believe in a misperception even more strongly than they might have if they hadn’t been challenged

What have you learned in applying behavioral science that has changed the way you work?

I’ve learned how hard it is to correct misperceptions. This has led me to explore alternative approaches than simply giving people facts. It has also led me to study how we can prevent those misperceptions from starting in the first place by looking at the actions of political elites who often create the misperceptions that I study.

How do you use behavioral science in your daily life (or recommend that people use behavioral science in their daily lives)?

My research has made me more forgiving of people for being human beings. I try to apply that in my own life. I realize that when people are misinformed, they’re often well-intentioned, and that it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person or not smart. In some cases, we haven’t created a context where they can form accurate beliefs. I think it’s important to not blame people when they’re actually almost the victims rather than the perpetrators.