Adapted from “When Your Thoughts Work Against You,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Remember the firestorm that the cover of The New Yorker magazine’s July 21, 2008, issue created? The cartoon depicted presidential nominee Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, in the Oval Office, he dressed as a flag-burning Muslim, she as a terrorist.
It wasn’t just the flat-footed attempt at humor or the embarrassing caricatures that drew Democrats’ ire. In addition, Obama supporters appeared to worry that the cartoon would perpetuate the very misinformation it was intended to spoof.
In a New York Times op-ed, scientist Sam Wang and writer Sandra Aamodt describe this phenomenon as a very real possibility. Due to the way in which our brains store and reprocess information, we tend to forget the source of learned knowledge. For instance, you know that two plus two equals four, but you probably don’t remember exactly where you learned this fact.
This source amnesia can cause us to forget whether a statement is true. According to one poll, 10% of Americans erroneously think that Obama is a Muslim. Some of these people probably understood that this rumor was not true when they first heard it. Over time, however, the source of the statement may have faded away, turning the misinformation into a presumed fact. Similarly, a cartoon showing Obama dressed as a Muslim could conceivably lead people to draw false conclusions about his religious beliefs over time.
The take-away for negotiators? Directly rebutting false statements that others make about you or your organization may be a strategic mistake. For your message to take hold, focus on spreading the truth rather than disavowing the lie. In addition, when you hear a false rumor, take time to commit the source of the lie to memory as well as the lie itself, lest you fall for it later.