What is it about?

Communication is essential for human life, but carries with it the threat of misleading or misguided information. In this study, we investigate how the mind defends itself against misinformation. Specifically, we tested the idea that people remember the speaker of false messages more so than true messages, as this helps with the ongoing evaluation of the speaker and message. Across four memory experiments, participants showed better memory not for everything a person said, but selectively for messages that were inconsistent with preexisting beliefs. This memory advantage also extended to the place and time at which these messages were communicated. Interestingly, over extended periods of time, we also found that memory was strongest for the speakers of false messages, more so than the place at which the message was said.

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Why is it important?

In the present day, the threat of "fake news," political disinformation, and conspiracies seem more salient than ever. The threats of misinformation have also existed across human evolutionary history. The current study provides the first evidence for an important means by which the mind defends itself against misinformation. We found that the mind selectively links false statements to their speaker, aiding in the further evaluation of those statements and their speaker. This study also tells us something new about how memory works. We found the first evidence that a false statement by itself can result in enhanced memory for its surrounding context.


This study was inspired by evolutionary theories of human cognition by Dan Sperber, Hugo Mercier, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. These authors suggest that people are not strongly gullible. Instead, they argue, the mind seems to possess a variety of mechanisms to defend against misinformation, including the memory processes studied here. We were also inspired by research, including by the authors, on counterintuitive concepts, which have been extensively studied in the context of religious or supernatural beliefs.

Spencer Mermelstein
University of California, Santa Barbara

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This page is a summary of: She told me about a singing cactus: Counterintuitive concepts are more accurately attributed to their speakers than ordinary concepts., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, May 2021, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xge0000987.
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