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Tribune News Network
New research by Anne-Sophie Chaxel and Sandra Laporte, marketing professors at HEC Paris Business School and the Toulouse School of Management respectively, has explained the process of polarisation over unsubstantiated claims related to COVID-19.
The paper, to be published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research’s January 2021 print issue, analysed how truth distortion takes place by connecting people’s beliefs in controversial, unsubstantiated claims and their support of the source making those claims.
The authors found that early support for a public figure translated into endorsements of the statements made by that figure, regardless of the validity of those claims. In other words, people would believe false or unsubstantiated statements if made by someone they liked and supported. In addition, the research also revealed that people would grow more supportive of other unconnected claims the public figure would have and would become ever more convinced when claims were repeated over time.
Equally, the research also found that people who did not like or support the source making unsubstantiated statements, their disbelief and disapproval of the source’s claims would grow over time. Both positions are crucial in understanding the process of polarisation.
The paper ‘Truth Distortion: A Process to Explain Polarisation over Unsubstantiated Claims Related to COVID-19’ is based on research carried out in two studies which looked at the behavioural changes of 1,400 people.
The individuals who took part in the study underwent an exercise where they would be first exposed to a ‘respectable’ public figure. This public figure would then make a series of unsubstantiated claims about COVID-19, including the virus being manmade in China or claims that hydroxychloroquine is a cure for the infection of the virus.
The individuals would then offer their support (or lack of) for these claims. Interestingly, both studies shed similar results showing how individuals who supported the public figure initially, grew more convinced about their belief in the public figure’s claims, and those who did not support the public figure grew more opposed to his claims. These positions were then contrasted with a control group.
According to HEC Paris Professor Anne-Sophie Chaxel, “truth judgments are tainted by our prior experience and knowledge; and our study shows that a simple preference for a source of information can induce truth distortion. The most exciting result I think is that truth distortion fuels up even stronger levels of truth distortion, as truth distortion grew across the choice process. This explains why a minor proportion of people reversed their preference for the source, despite the highly controversial nature of the statements. Truth distortion contributes to increased commitment towards the source.”
“We believe that these findings are crucial in how polarisation occurs and, as well as informing the scientific and academic communities, we think they should be of value to public figures across the globe,” said Professor Chaxel. “Influential figures should take note of their influence and prevent the spread of unsubstantiated claims which, often, put people at risk.”
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