Paw Paw’s Inbox – A Primer on the Psychology of Chain Emails

Introducing Paw Paw’s Inbox – the part of the blog where we look at the latest chain email to convince your grandfather (aunt,  mother-in-law, second cousin twice removed… there’s always one) that a radical Muslim president is seeking to destroy his own country.

The degree to which these emails are disseminated and believed causes me tremendous frustration. Democratic discourse becomes polluted when such blatantly false misinformation is accepted as fact – especially maddening when it is often so simple to debunk. But the factual qualities of the message aren’t as important a part of acceptance or rejection as you might think. Often, it comes down to our perceptions of that message, and how it fits in to what we already believe.

Partisans tend to seek agreeable information. They are also less likely to think critically about information that conforms to their pre-existing beliefs. It’s part of a phenomenon known as “biased assimilation.” In their pioneering study, Stanford researchers Lord, Ross, and Lepper (1979) wrote that a person’s pre-existing attitudes and beliefs lead to:

A propensity to remember the strengths of confirming evidence, but the weaknesses of disconfirming evidence, to judge confirming evidence as relevant and reliable but disconfirming evidence as irrelevant and unreliable, and to accept confirming evidence at face value while scrutinizing disconfirming evidence hypercritically. (p. 2099)

The Better Business Bureau has a simple axiom: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But people still fall for get rich quick schemes and debt elimination scams everyday. Why? For so many, they desperately  need it to be true. The need for economic security – for grocery money – leads people to ignore the red flags in search of the prize they must obtain.

The same thing is true of partisans and political information. For instance, if you don’t care for President Obama, this chain email about him supposedly calling war veterans selfish whiners is right up your alley. But wait a second. Before you fire off that forward, think about it. Why on Earth would a sitting U.S. president ever say something so damning? And if he did, why is your Aunt Carol the first person to let you know about it? Wouldn’t the news networks have picked up on that? Limbaugh? Anyone?

That line of rational thinking is normally enough to dismiss the majority of these emails. However, the people passing them along aren’t thinking in that manner. Instead, the research would suggest that they are accepting the information as factual and true because it bolsters their pre-existing positions. Just like we have a need for economic security, we also have a need for perceptual security – we need the comfort of knowing that we are right. The best way to achieve this cognitive consonance is to surround ourselves with agreeable information and avoid disagreeable messages – a selective exposure principle often associated with false consensus effect (see Ross, Greene, & House, 1977) and pluralistic ignorance (see O’Gorman, 1975, 1976).

Have you ever tried to disprove one of these emails to the person who sent it to you? Notice how you are met with a polite shrug off and are promptly removed from the forward list? They’ll say, “Yeah, but I’m sure that Obama’s up to something,” or, “Those FactCheck, PolitiFact, Snopes, etc. are just a bunch of left-wing propagandists. You can’t trust them.” (Which is a whole other soapbox for a whole other day.)

The same psychological mechanisms that make the misinformation so appealing – the bolstering and protecting of one’s position – make the partisan mind resistant to correction. It’s like the AT&T  commercial where the guys are arguing over what year a song came out. The subject of the commercial is adamant that he is correct, but when he discovers that he is not, he quickly says, “The restaurant’s on fire; I’ll call you back” and hangs up. It hurts our pride to be wrong, especially when someone close to us is the one pointing out our error.

To dismiss these chain emails as playful distractions – to say that the senders know they aren’t true, but pass them along for a laugh – seems a bit too nonchalant. Look no further than the PEW Research Center poll that got so much media attention one year ago. The one that reported the number of Americans who believed President Obama was a Muslim had increased to almost one in five. The number jumped to 34% among conservative Republicans. The subgroup most likely to oppose Obama, and most likely to seek information supporting that position, believed the misinformation the most (for those curious about fact-checking a few of the “Obama’s a Muslim” claims, PolitiFact’s summary is a great starting place).

And, to quote Mr. Obama, “Let me be clear…” I am not arguing that these phenomena are exclusive to one political party or ideology. Liberal Democrats are just as likely as conservative Republicans to fall into the traps of biased assimilation and selective exposure (and they do – 9/11 was an inside job planned by Bush and Cheney? Please). It just so happens that at this moment, the target is a Democrat, and folks on the right are the ones sending and receiving the misinformation. Give the 2012 Election a little more time to heat up – things will even out.

So, occasionally on this blog, we will look at some of these chain emails making the rounds. We’ll see if their claims stand scrutiny, or if one quick Google search (sometimes even the one the email suggests!) is enough to uncover the hoax. Then you can share the ugly truth with your favorite forwarder. Just don’t expect to be invited back to Sunday dinner.

Scholarly Readings:
Lord, C., Ross, L, & Lepper, M. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(11), 2098-2109.
O’Gorman, H. (1975). Pluralistic ignorance and white estimates of white support for racial segregation. Public Opinion Quarterly, 39(3), 313-330.
O’Gorman, H., & Garry, S. (1976). Pluralistic ignorance: A replication and extension. Public Relations Quarterly, 40(4), 449-458.
Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The false consensus effect: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(3), 279-301.

5 thoughts on “Paw Paw’s Inbox – A Primer on the Psychology of Chain Emails”

  1. All of this from one of PawPaws e-mails? Maybe two or three……Point remains too many people will take an e-mail with information taken out of context , twisted or just enough of the truth to sound reasonable and pass it along
    without even considering simple research…

  2. I’m a little wary of false equivalence when it comes to political email forwarding. The craziest material, by far, comes from the right. It often seems that the only information these people consume comes from talk radio, Fox News, and partisan email — and it’s mostly irrational nonsense. And just as you say, the response to a more measured perspective is dismissive and willfully incurious. This is such an interesting and important problem because base voters are electing people who actually believe some of the crazy nonsense. (Does anyone think Gohmert, Bachmann or King are faking it?) Right-wing media personalities are making fortunes peddling vitriol, and there may be no way to break the cycle. Very compelling, and very disturbing. All of the most powerful incentives exacerbate the problem; our neurological wiring widens the gap between rational disagreement on policy on one hand and lunatic conspiracy theories on the other. Solutions please!

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