It’s long been my pet opinion that the ability to quickly produce and disseminate simple graphs is one of the huge gains of the digital media era. And now from Brendan Nyhan & Jason Reifler comes some empirical research (PDF) to confirm my pre-existing biases:
People often resist information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. This disconfirmation bias is a particular problem in the context of political misperceptions, which are widespread and frequently difficult to correct. In this paper, we examine two different hypotheses about the prevalence of misinformation. First, people tend to resist unwelcome information because it is threatening to their worldview or self-concept. Drawing from social psychology research, we test whether affirming individuals’ selfworth and thereby buttressing them against this threat can make them more willing to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. Second, corrective information is often presented in an ineffective manner. We therefore also examine whether graphical corrections may be more effective than text at reducing counter-arguing by individuals inclined to resist counter-attitudinal information. Results from three experiments show that selfaffirmation substantially reduces reported misperceptions among those most likely to hold them, suggesting that people cling to false beliefs in part because giving them up would threaten their sense of self. Graphical corrections are also found to successfully reduce incorrect beliefs among potentially resistant subjects and to perform better than an equivalent textual correction. However, contrary to previous research, affirmed subjects rarely differ from unaffirmed subjects in their willingness to accept new counterattitudinal information.
In other words, if someone’s wrong about something, it’s easier to persuade them to change their mind with a graphical presentation than a textual one.