July 17, 2011

Research findings: first impressions really do count the most

Informational messages are often a response to misinformation. A glaring example is the belief that HIV/AIDS is "only" a problem in the homosexual population, a pervasive belief that has exacerbated the spread of the virus in the heterosexual population for over 30 years. Such misinformation can continue to color judgment even after successful public education efforts, as shown in a recent study by Ullrich K. H. Ecker et al, of the University of Western Australia.

The research puts more evidence behind the adage that first impressions are the most lasting. Ecker conducted two experiments using a story about a warehouse fire, with "misinformation" being a statement that volatile chemicals were stored in the warehouse, and the "retraction" being a statement that the warehouse was empty.

The first experiment (n=161 undergraduate students) gauged the effect of varying the strength of the misinformation or the retraction by varying the repetitions (1, 3, or none) of each. Not surprisingly, there was a positive relationship between the number of repetitions and the answers on questionnaires about the warehouse fire story. But the experiment demonstrated that even when there was only 1 occurrence of misinformation, the 3 repetitions of the retraction did not reduce the influence of the misinformation back to zero.

In the second experiment (n=138 undergraduate students) Ecker et al simulated the effect of distractions on the continued influence of misinformation. "It is well established that cognitive load—- that is, the division of attention between two tasks—can have debilitating effects on memory retrieval," they write. "Cognitive load at misinformation encoding should therefore reduce the continued influence of misinformation." Indeed, the experimental results bear out this hypothesis, but again influence of the misinformation was never reduced to zero.

Ironically, a reference in the paper's introduction may have coded some "misinformation" about the authors' professional motives in my mind. They write,
To use a notorious real-world example, the Bush administration purportedly made 935 false statements about the security risk posed by Iraq in the 2 years following 9/11 (Lewis & Reading-Smith, 2008). It is possible that the reiteration of this misinformation (i.e., that Iraq possessed WMDs) led to particularly powerful continued influence (e.g., the widespread continued belief in the existence of WMDs in Iraq; Kull et al., 2003; Lewandowsky et al., 2005, 2009).
Although the paper does seem well-written and well-reported, that statement carried enough political-zealot baggage to make look more closely than usual for possible flaws in the rest of the paper. And, even though I am cognizant of that bias, there is no easy way to erase it from my mind.


Ecker, U. K. H., Lewandowsky, S., Swire, B., & Chang, D. 2011. Correcting false information in memory: Manipulating the strength of misinformation encoding and its retraction. Psychon Bull Rev. 18:570–578.



July 12, 2011

A Marylander cracks a lobster

Arthropods. They are a vital part of every ecosystem, and some are mesmerizingly beautiful to behold. But when arthropods interact with me, it's eat or be eaten!

Cracking and eating whole steamed blue crab has been an occasional** pleasure for me since childhood. Though some complain that "it's too much work," I find the challenge part of the fun, and I seem to have the knack. I have been called upon to demonstrate "crab picking" for many a newcomer to the crab-cracking table. Yet, despite being a veteran consumer of crustaceans, lobster has graced my plate only a handful of times, and a whole lobster never, until my recent trip to Maine. You see, I just didn't think I liked lobster.

And I was a cynic when people told me to reserve my judgment for those local New England crustaceans. I'll have to admit, I was wrong. Fresh from the sea, steamed and served with butter, the lobster was decadent and delicious.

For someone used to cracking crabs, the differing anatomy initially had me going slow. Can I eat this? Is that the same? I am still not sure whether I committed some kind of faux pas by getting "lump lobster meat" out of the body of the lobster. But I found many similarities, including the superior flavor (and inaccessibility) of the leg meat.

Lobster and crab are both relatively low-calorie proteins. But I found that lobster really needed butter to round out the flavor, which kind of kills any claim as a healthy food. In contrast, all crab needs is a little Old Bay!

** Whole local crabs are for special occasions. They are messy, time-consuming, and a bit pricey, but more importantly they are historically overfished. Harvesting of blue crabs, notably from the Chesapeake Bay, is managed and policed, but the population growth of crabs is limited by lack of dissolved oxygen, lack of submerged aquatic vegetation, and food web pressures. The American lobster is also a managed fishery species, and faces similar pressures.

July 7, 2011

There's a learning curve to online life

This is not my first blog or my first website. It is, however, my first blog and website directly associated to the same name on my driver's license.

Sometimes I look at the highly visible online lives of people only a few years younger than me, and thank my lucky stars that being born earlier denied me the opportunity to splay my life over the web before my adult judgment kicked in. However, the sheer volume of data flowing through our lives may provide a measure of cover. While there is a permanence to off-the cuff comments that previously did not exist, sites like Google seem to preferentially show data from sources that update frequently, which may act to bury old news out of sight of the casual browser.

Society will eventually adapt the new flow of personal information. People will become more savvy about their data stream. Perhaps throwaway comments, though recorded, will eventually be seen for what they are: junk. Maybe when we look at those embarrassing recorded moments, we'll more readily doubt their verisimilitude, and enjoy the quirks of humanity.

Meanwhile, there is little denying that the Internet will be a good thing for us, in the long run. The world seems to be slowly, but surely, coming together on its level ground, and that is why I'm here now.