Bin Laden, being first, and being right

By May 4, 2011Presentation Skills

The US government has issued several corrections of its original story about Osama bin Laden’s final moments. Crucial differences include that a woman was not used as a human shield, and that bin Laden himself was unarmed.

The BBC’s Mark Mardell, regretting the gap between the two accounts, says “there is no mileage in misleading people and then correcting yourself”.

He’s wrong. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that the first story we hear is the one most of us will believe, if it fits our existing beliefs. Stephan Lewandowsky studied retracted reports from the war in Iraq and found the American public persisted in their belief in the original version, whereas more sceptical Germans tended to adjust their view of what happened. If you dislike Barack Obama, you are more likely to believe that he personally issued the false statement because I have put a picture of him at the head of this article.

Once we make a connection that works for us, we are resistant to changing our mind. The effect is magnified by social proof – when we see and hear a story repeated, it becomes rooted – and by our deep desire to be consistent. If I say to friends and neighbours “what a coward, hiding behind his wife like that” then it is harder for me to alter my account.

It could be a genuine mistake. But, as a technique, first strike misinformation is tried-and-tested. Newspapers are forced to make retractions on a regular basis. In 2005, the Metropolitan Police were accused of leaking that Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot and killed by police on a London underground train, was carrying a backpack and leapt over security barriers, despite later video proof to the contrary. Of course, that version is easy to believe – why else would they shoot somebody?

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