Here’s a fact that explains so much in the world: information we hear first, about almost any subject, is incredibly hard to shake, even if we find out later it was wrong or needs revision.
Charlie Warzel, a writer for The Atlantic, quotes research scientist Mike Caulfield, calling first information “sticky.”
Psychologists call this sticky information the “continued influence effect.” Warzel says a recent paper in Nature described it this way:
When information is encoded into memory and then new information that discredits it is learned, the original information is not simply erased or replaced. Instead, misinformation and corrective information coexist and compete for activation.
New information is so sticky in part because of the way we learn it. When we are working on assimilating a new piece of information, we connect it to things we already know. Those connections are powerful; they serve as shortcuts to help us understand and remember important information about the world around us. They’re not erased when we learn new information about the first fact. Our brain continues to use the original connections as its basis for understanding the concept.
Warzel describes the original concept and connection as “load-bearing.” He writes, “Once we’ve yoked a new piece of information to something we already know and still believe to be true, the new piece of information becomes structurally important to our understanding of the world around us. It is load-bearing and thus not easily removed. It’s one reason why, in trial settings, even if a piece of evidence is ruled inadmissible, it may consciously or subconsciously sway a jury.”
Warzel writes that it’s not only first information that’s so sticky; information that gets repeated often also embeds itself in our brain, even if we know it’s not logical or even true. Science is particularly vulnerable to this effect because new information changes what scientists prescribe. Diet, exercise, and health guidelines are constantly being updated, causing confusion in some people and causing others to stick to what they have believed for years, even if the scientific community knows better now.
This news may help you be more empathetic toward co-workers or family members who cling stubbornly to outdated information. It may also make you more effective when you want to provide more information.
First, don’t assume people know what they need to know. If you have important new information, take the time to deliver it clearly and simply. In fact, simplicity is the key to helping the new information take hold and start to replace the old information. If your new explanation Is too complex, your listeners may simply give up and disengage.
You’ll also need to provide information (clear and easy to understand) on why the new information is replacing the old. Your listeners need something they can connect to their current belief system before they can accept it. The “why we’re changing the policy” discussion is even more important than understanding what the new policy is.