David Rapp’s Research Finds Readers Rely on Inaccurate Information

David Rapp’s Research Finds Readers Rely on Inaccurate Information

eye tracker

People learn about the world from what they read. They rely on the information in fictional and nonfictional texts, applying the acquired knowledge to solve problems, make decisions, build opinions and arguments, and motivate future activity. This is a good thing when texts provide accurate information as a function of meticulously conducted research, rigorously developed arguments, and carefully constructed prose. 

Research by SESP associate professor David Rapp of the Learning Sciences program shows that people also routinely rely on texts that contain inaccuracies, both intentional and unintentional, or offer information from wholly unreliable sources. What makes this a particularly perplexing problem is that people use incorrect information not only when they are unaware it is wrong but also when they should already know it is inaccurate.

One line of inquiry in Rapp's lab attempts to explain why readers fall victim to inaccurate information and to determine how to reduce such occurrences. He argues that one reason people exhibit a liberal reliance on what they read is that effective reading in itself requires substantial mental resources. This places limits on the level of critical evaluation that is likely to be easily enacted during reading.

Thankfully, results from his lab have shown that critical evaluation can be encouraged through deliberative activities designed to highlight disconnects between what readers already know and what texts tell them. The challenge for his work is determining how to encourage readers to regularly engage in these deliberative activities, regardless of whether they are reading for fun or for profit.

One crucial method for assessing people's responses to inaccuracies involves examining how they deal with them during reading. The eye tracker, coupled with other behavioral measures of reading including memory tests and judgments of the truth of statements, offers a powerful approach for understanding when and how individuals build understandings from text materials. 

Rapp's lab uses an eye tracker to determine readers' eye movements as they process written materials containing accuracies and inaccuracies. This involves measuring the amount of time participants focus on particular words and sentences, where their eyes go when they encounter difficulties, and their revisits of inaccurate information and the contexts supporting or refuting the information.

Rapp explains that comprehension involves a dynamic, interactive set of processes that includes the activation of prior knowledge, the use of that activated knowledge along with information in current focus to generate understandings beyond what was explicitly presented, and the potential updating or revision of memory. Rapp’s program of research examines how these processes function both successfully and unsuccessfully during learning experiences.

The goal of his work is to describe the complex interactions between learning processes and learning experiences that drive comprehension, and to influence those factors in the pursuit of best learning practices. His applications of this work have been funded by the Institute for Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute on Aging. He is currently coordinator of the Learning Sciences program at Northwestern University.  

By Northwestern University Office for Research
Last Modified: 9/29/15