It’s a communications technique that’s well-used and well-loved, but here’s the sad truth about mythbusting: it doesn’t work. Worse still, multiple studies have shown that it often backfires and reinforces the myth we’re trying to bust. People can even remember us as the source of the false information.
This is because mentioning false information at all immediately prompts people to think of it.
Despite the best intentions, mythbusting subtly repeats and reinforces the beliefs we are trying to rebut. On top of that, mythbusting often involves making the information we are trying to counter more prominent in layout and design.
People often lead with the myth to be debunked, so it benefits from being the first thing people see (the primacy effect). Often myths are pulled out in bold or a bright colour, making them even more memorable.
As communicators we want to counter unproductive beliefs people hold about issues, but there are better ways to do this.
The next time you feel tempted to bust a myth, try these three tips instead:
Don’t lead with the myth
Say what it is, not what it isn’t. Focus your efforts on clearly stating the information or belief you do want people to take away. Instead of: “People often think that being healthy is our own responsibility – we just need to eat less and move more. But our health is actually impacted greatly by the options and opportunities available to us.”
Try: “The options and opportunities available to us shape our health. From whether we can access healthy food in the shops where we live, to whether we have safe spaces to walk and exercise.”
Keep it simple and memorable. The easier your point is to process and recall, the better.
Do this consistently and often to build up understanding over time and make your positive case feel familiar and front of mind.
When we explain, it’s like showing our workings – it helps to lead people to the same conclusion rather than just expecting them to believe us
Explanation goes further than asserting our point via mythbusting. It builds understanding. When people understand our point, they are far more likely to agree with it.
Tell a complete story
When we encounter information, we consciously and unconsciously ask ourselves questions like ‘Does this story flow smoothly?’ and ‘Does this add up?’. Making our point as part of a complete, consistent story helps to answer these questions.
We can bring in context and evidence to set the scene and support our story too. Remember, evidence like facts and stats are just one part of the story – use them to support your point, but don’t expect them to do all the heavy lifting.