Skip to main content Accessibility help

Displacing Misinformation about Events: An Experimental Test of Causal Corrections

  • Brendan Nyhan (a1) and Jason Reifler (a2)


Misinformation can be very difficult to correct and may have lasting effects even after it is discredited. One reason for this persistence is the manner in which people make causal inferences based on available information about a given event or outcome. As a result, false information may continue to influence beliefs and attitudes even after being debunked if it is not replaced by an alternate causal explanation. We test this hypothesis using an experimental paradigm adapted from the psychology literature on the continued influence effect and find that a causal explanation for an unexplained event is significantly more effective than a denial even when the denial is backed by unusually strong evidence. This result has significant implications for how to most effectively counter misinformation about controversial political events and outcomes.



Hide All
Associated Press. 2002. “Gary Condit Loses Primary to Former Protege Cardoza.” Grand Rapids Press (March 6): A2.
Associated Press. 2013. “Lawmaker Won't Face Contribution Probe.” Monterey County Herald (December 30). (, accessed December 5, 2014.
Barakat, M. 2010. “Chandra Levy Verdict: Suspect Found Guilty in 2001 Death of DC Intern.” Associated Press (November 22, 2010).
Baquet, D., and Gerth, J.. 1992. “Lawmaker's Defense of B.C.C.I. Went Beyond Speech in Senate.” New York Times (August 26, 1992).
Bullock, J. 2007. “Experiments on Partisanship and Public Opinion: Party Cues, False Beliefs, and Bayesian Updating.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University.
Cobb, M. D., Nyhan, B., and Reifler, J.. 2013. “Beliefs Don't Always Persevere: How Political Figures Are Punished When Positive Information About Them Is Discredited.” Political Psychology 34 (3): 307326.
Duflo, E., Glennerster, R., and Kremer, M.. 2007. “Using Randomization in Development Economics Research: A Toolkit.” Handbook of Development Economics 4: 38953962.
Ecker, U. K. H., Lewandowsky, S., and Apai, J.. 2011. “Terrorists Brought Down the Plane!—No, Actually it Was a Technical Fault: Processing Corrections of Emotive Information.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64:2, 283310.
Gerber, A. S., and Green, D. P.. 2012. Field Experiments: Design, Analysis, and Interpretation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Johnson, H., and Seifert, C.. 1994. “Sources of the Continued Influence Effect: When Misinformation in Memory Affects Later Inferences.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 20 (6): 14201436.
Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K. H., Seifert, C. M., Schwarz, N., and Cook, J.. 2012. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13 (3): 106131.
Lizza, R. 2014. “Crossing Christie.” The New Yorker (April 14): 40–51.
Maddux, M. 2004. “McGreevey Aide Cleared in Parole; Had no Role in Mobster's Release.” The Record (March 2): A03.
Moore, R. T. 2012. “Multivariate Continuous Blocking to Improve Political Science Experiments.” Political Analysis 20 (4): 460479.
Nyhan, B., and Reifler, J.. 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32 (2): 303330.
Nyhan, B., and Reifler, J.. 2012. “Misinformation and Fact-Checking: Research Findings from Social Science.” New America Foundation Media Policy Initiative Research Paper.
Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., and Ubel, P.. 2013. “The Hazards of Correcting Myths About health care Reform.” Medical Care 51 (2): 127132.
Oliphant, J. 2011. “Shirley Sherrod suing Breitbart.” Los Angeles Times (February 15): A13.
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. 2012. “On Eve of Foreign Debate, Growing Pessimism about Arab Spring Aftermath” Poll conducted October 12–14, 2014. (, accessed March 24, 2014.
Rivers, D. Unpublished manuscript. “Sample Matching: Representative Sampling from Internet Panels.” (, accessed March 21, 2014.
Ross, L., Lepper, M., and Hubbard, M.. 1975. “Perseverance in Self-Perception and Social perception: Biased Attributional Processes in the Debriefing Paradigm.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32: 880892.
Tapper, J., and Kahn, H.. 2010. “White House Apologizes to Shirley Sherrod, Ag Secretary Offers Her New Job.” (July 21, 2010).
Wegner, D. M., Wenzlaff, R., Kerker, R. M., and Beattie, A. E.. 1981. “Incrimination Through Innuendo: Can Media Questions Become Public Answers?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40 (5): 822832.
Wilkes, A. L., and Leatherbarrow, M.. 1988. “Editing Episodic Memory Following the Identification of Error.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 40A (2): 361387.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Nyhan and Reifler supplementary material

 Word (76 KB)
76 KB

Displacing Misinformation about Events: An Experimental Test of Causal Corrections

  • Brendan Nyhan (a1) and Jason Reifler (a2)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.