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Certainty Principle: People Who Hold False Convictions Are Better at Retaining Corrected Information

Researchers have used imaging technology to spy on the brain as it corrects strongly held beliefs, shedding light on how we might learn from our mistakes.
A fellow looking very confused or tired. Maybe even both.

flickr/Olly Newport

Firm convictions dominate news headlines these days, but because of a phenomenon called the hypercorrection effect, strongly held ideas that turn out to be factually incorrect are actually easier to amend . Brain imaging is now shedding light on how people change their minds during hypercorrection, potentially revealing the best ways for us to learn from our errors.

To understand hypercorrection, says cognitive psychologist Janet Metcalfe at Columbia University, "suppose I ask you, 'What is the capital of Canada ?' and you say 'Toronto. ' I say, 'How confident are you?' and you say, 'Very highly confident.' When I then tell you that actually the capital is Ottawa, you're very likely to remember it— not just a few minutes later but weeks later, and maybe for much longer, we think."

Scientists reason that in hypercorrection, after people discover that ideas they felt very sure about were not in fact correct, the surprise and embarrassment they feel makes them pay special attention to alternative responses about which they felt less confident . People then go on to take the corrected information to heart, learning from their errors.

"In contrast, if I asked you a question to which you gave a not-very-confident answer, like, perhaps, 'What color does amethyst turn when it is heated?' and you say, 'blue' with low confidence, when I tell you that it's actually yellow, you're not very likely to remember it," Metcalfe says.

Given this model , to learn more about what happens in the brain during hypercorrection, Metcalfe and her colleagues focused on brain regions linked to attention as well as those involved in metacognition (self- awareness of  the thought process ) . The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 14 volunteers while they answered nearly 600 general information questions that had single-word answers. The participants then rated their confidence on their responses.

"My favorite—'What is the last name of the Oscar award –winning actor who thanked his parents for not using birth control?' '[Dustin] Hoffman,'" Metcalfe says.

The scientists found evidence supporting their hypercorrection model. Both wrong answers and right answers lit up the anterior cingulate and medial frontal gyrus, parts of the brain linked with attention and metacognition .

"The anterior cingulate registers our surprise and maybe something that we might, roughly, call embarrassment, and so we gear up all our resources to better encode 'Ottawa,'" Metcalfe says, referring to her previous geography quiz . The region did not, however, activate as strongly for wrong answers about which subjects initially felt low confidence, suggesting that the participants would be less likely to remember corrections to such answers.

The medial frontal gyrus is involved in social processes, suggesting a role in hypercorrection is as well. "This makes a lot of sense—a lot of our knowledge comes from other people and books, and from consensus and encyclopedias, and Scientific American," Metcalfe says. "Even though in our experiments answers were delivered by a computer, those answers were written by people. So it makes total sense that accepting corrections involves your relationship with other people." Medial frontal gyrus activation patterns mirrored those of the anterior cingulate.

In addition, after people were told that an answer in which they were very confident was wrong, the fMRI showed activation in the right temporoparietal junction, an area linked with thinking about what others might know, and the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region linked with the avoidance of thinking about something. The former suggests that subjects recognized that others had different beliefs than them, wh ereas the latter hints they may have been suppressing their wrong answers after learning they were incorrect, Metcalfe says. The scientists detailed their findings online March 27 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The findings have implications for educational techniques and theory. "The broadest conclusion we might draw from these findings is that we may have the wrong attitude toward errors," says cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork at University of California, Los Angeles, who did not take part in this work. "Throughout society and our educational system, there tends to be an attitude that you don't want people making errors and mistakes during learning. These findings and related findings suggest that in order to increase the effectiveness of long-term learning and understanding, we should structure instruction and training so that likely errors and misconceptions will come up during the learning process, and use them as opportunities for learning."

He added, "when it comes to, say, job contexts such as nuclear power plants or the military or the police...we don't really want such errors to be deferred until a time and place where they may really matter, and matter greatly."

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