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Carolyn Yoon
  Carolyn Yoon

Study By Ross Professors Awarded 'Best Paper' By Journal Of Consumer Research

11/10/2008 --

Work showed that warning about false claims often backfires with older consumers.

A study by Stephen M. Ross School of Business professors Carolyn Yoon and Norbert Schwarz that showed how warnings about false claims can backfire with consumers has been honored by a leading academic journal.

The Journal of Consumer Research bestowed its "Best Paper" award on the 2005 study, "How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations." The journal gives the award three years after publication to see how the research stands the test of time.

Yoon and Schwarz, working with colleagues Ian Skurnik from the University of Toronto and Denise C. Park from the University of Illinois, showed that older adults tend to mistakenly remember false claims as true when they are repeated. The lesson for advertisers and those running public information campaigns is that they're better off avoiding attempts to correct false information and should stick to the facts.

"The authors offer a very pragmatic application of this research, particularly when it comes to protecting older consumers," the Journal said about the study.

Both Yoon and Schwarz say they were surprised to receive the award.

"We really werenít expecting it at all and itís nice to get recognition, Yoon says. "We feel honored to receive the award from the premier journal in our field."

Yoon, Schwarz and their colleagues tested how age and time-delay interact with repetition to lead to misremembering false statements as true. They exposed 32 younger adults and 32 older adults one time or three times to claims that were explicitly labeled either false or true.

After three days, older adults incorrectly remembered 28% of false statements as true when they were told once that the statement was false. But they incorrectly remembered 40% of the false statements as true when they were told three times the statement was false.

What's behind that? Familiarity, says Schwarz.

"When you feel material is familiar, it makes you feel that there is something to it," he says. "We think that's what leads people astray."

Besides helping advertisers and those running educational campaigns frame their content, the research also highlights that older consumers can be more at risk for confusing and/or fraudulent marketing campaigns.

"As we get older, our explicit memory -- that is, memory for details and what we're able to recall -- declines whereas feelings of familiarity do not," Schwarz says. "You're not quite sure what you heard, but when something sounds familiar, there must be something to it."

Follow-up research also showed that informational campaigns that attempt to clear up misinformation by including both myths and facts backfire with even younger consumers.

The professors showed consumers a health information flyer from the Centers for Disease Control that contained both misinformation, which was labeled false, and facts, labeled as true.

After only 30 minutes, many remembered the false information as true.

Yoon said several public health campaigns follow the "myth and fact" format and that the research shows such techniques can backfire.

"We need to do a better job of educating public policy decision makers," she says.

Yoon, Schwarz and their colleagues also are examining the effectiveness of refuting false claims in political campaigns. Schwarz said president-elect Barack Obama handled one false claim -- that he is Muslim Ė effectively by not repeating the claim.

"What Obama needed to do, and did, was to come out and talk about his Christian faith," Schwarz said. "You make the truth highly fluent and accessible and that makes the story right in people's minds."

In general, Yoon says the researchers still see a lot of marketing that attempts to counter false claims. It's a natural reaction because in face-to-face arguments it can be effective to list an opponent's points and counter them point by point.

But it's not an effective technique for a broad campaign trying to reach the masses.

"To refute it is adding fuel to the fire," she says.

—Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,