Here’s a question for you: Who was the first prime minister of India? It is quite likely that you easily recalled the correct answer (Jawaharlal Nehru) to this question. Now try answering a much tougher question: What was the source of this information? Were you reminded of this piece of information just recently while reading about India’s 61st birthday or did you recall it from elementary school days? The chances are that you won’t be able to pinpoint the exact source of this information.
So why does it matter? It matters because we could ask you for the source of information for practically everything you know, and in most instances you won’t be able to recall the source from where you picked up that information. This is the result of a quirk with the way our brain processes and remembers information, and this quirk holds significant implications for management communications.
Recent research has shown that our brain handles the storage and retrieval of a “fact” differently from the information regarding the source of that fact. After a period of time, a fact may remain in our memory, but the source of the fact is lost.
Our brain dedicates an enormous amount of memory space to store “factual” information but relatively little to store “source” information. Hence, we know a lot of things without knowing how we know them or where we first learnt about them. This source amnesia serves us well most of the time by making efficient use of our limited memory space, but it has the potential of causing huge problems when our information comes from unreliable sources.
For example, let’s say you hear a rumour from a person you know is not reliable. As long as you remember that the rumour came from that individual, you will appropriately discount it. But if the rumour is intriguing enough, it may outlive the memory of its source resulting in a situation where you are able to recall the rumour but you can no longer recall the source-related information. This is where we run the risk of assigning more credibility to the rumour than we would if we could correctly recall the source. If a piece of information is particularly interesting or exciting, people are likely to remember it and share it with others. If that information came from an unreliable source, it only affects its initial processing. As this information is repeated over and over again, the unreliable source gets separated from the information and all people can recall is the information itself. The source is forgotten — just as you have forgotten how you learnt about India’s first prime minister. And once the information is reinforced through repetition without the disclaimer that it came from an unreliable source, your brain starts believing it to the point that you are completely convinced that it is true.
Mere repetition can add to a claim’s credibility. In a classic study, subjects were exposed to an unsubstantiated claim that Coca-Cola could be used as paint thinner. One group of subjects was exposed to the claim five times whereas another was exposed to the same claim only twice. The first group was significantly more likely to believe that the claim came from Consumer Reports (considered a very credible source in the US) instead of The National Enquirer (considered by many to be an unreliable source).
This research finding has significant implications for situations involving corporate rumours. In the process of refuting rumours, we may actually end up reinforcing them. By being constantly reminded about the claims of the rumour in rebuttals, people may ironically start believing them more strongly because they disconnect the facts from the source. Many people have used this technique to mislead the masses. When an unreliable source keeps repeating a message, it comes to be believed over time — especially when the message is something people want to believe or like to believe. The persistence and popularity of conspiracy theories — some of them wildly outrageous — are testament to the power of repetition. We bet there are people who still have a lingering doubt about the US moon landing despite numerous attempts by National Aeronautics and Space Administration or Nasa at setting the record straight by providing evidence to the contrary.
Source amnesia assumes special relevance in today’s age when anyone and everyone has the ability to broadcast their opinions using the Internet without any editorial supervision or fact-checking. Not only do we need to seek information from credible sources but, given that we are likely to forget about the source, we will be better served by ignoring information coming from sources whose credibility is suspect to begin with.
Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
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