David Rapp: Why Debunking Doesn't Work

David Rapp: Why Debunking Doesn't Work

George H.W. BushGeorge H. W. Bush with wife Barbara

In a Washington Post opinion piece, Northwestern University's David Rapp explains why people still think former President George H.W. Bush didn't understand the electronic scanner in a grocery store, despite evidence to the contrary.

"Some people didn’t read the debunkings, but they did hear the original story, perhaps multiple times, so they remember it and repeat it," Rapp wrote. " A more sinister possibility is that some people might endorse the story, despite it being unsubstantiated, with the goal of positioning Bush in a less than generous light. Both of these possibilities rely on social motivations that can influence people’s willingness to repeat and believe the debunked events."

At the same time, Rapp argued, "psychological mechanisms rooted in the everyday operations of human cognition bear some of the responsibility for people’s reliance on the original false story. These mechanisms guide our effective understanding and interpretation of events, but like many cognitive processes can sometimes lead to confusion and comprehension failures."

The story of Bush’s reaction at the checkout scanner follows a plausible and seemingly simple sequence of events, Rapp wrote. "Rich guy doesn’t buy his own groceries, rich guy has never seen a grocery checkout. This makes it easy to remember and retell. Research studies have consistently shown that people find information that is easy to recall from memory to feel truer compared with information that is difficult to recall."

Rapp, the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, is a professor in Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy and the Department of Psychology. He is an expert in language and memory; his research focuses on the cognitive mechanisms responsible for successful learning and knowledge failures.

Read his entire piece "Why people still think George H.W. Bush didn't understand a grocery checkout."  


By David Rapp
Last Modified: 4/28/20