The Affordable Care Act (ACA) may be law, but misinformation — indeed, downright myths about what’s in the law — persist in the minds of many Americans.
That’s true even of what may be the biggest falsehood about the ACA: former Gov. Sarah Palin’s 2009 claim that the ACA would create “death panels” that would decide which older or disabled Americans would be “worthy of health care.” As late as spring 2012, a national poll found that 36 percent of Americans believed that the ACA would “[a]llow a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare.”
It’s been argued that the media bears much of the blame for the public’s misperceptions about the ACA and other controversial health issues. If the media were more aggressive in debunking such myths, this argument goes, people would be less likely to persist in their belief in them.
Research has suggested, however, that facts are often not enough to overcome the psychological phenomenon known as “motivated reasoning” — people’s tendency to ignore information that contradicts their pre-existing attitudes and beliefs.
A new study, published in the February issue of the journal Medical Care, suggests that motivated reasoning may be driving many Americans’ misperceptions regarding health-care reform. The study found that media-presented facts regarding “death panels” have a corrective effect only on some people’s beliefs — and that they may actually push others to harden their false conviction that the ACA establishes those panels.
How the study was conducted
For the study, researchers at Dartmouth College, George State University and Duke University devised an experiment involving 948 participants recruited through SurveySpot, an online site that gives people cash and rewards for completing opinion surveys. The median age of the participants was 51. They were almost evenly divided by gender (53 percent male), but were overwhelmingly white (78 percent). Some 45 percent identified themselves as Democrats, while 35 percent said they were Republicans.
Going into the study, well over half of the participants (59 percent) reported that they disapproved of the ACA either “strongly” or “somewhat” — a percentage that is consistent with national polling. The participants were also asked five basic questions that measured their level of political knowledge, such as “How many times can a person be elected President?”
For the experiment itself, the participants were asked to read a news article that reported Palin’s “death panel” claim. For one group, however, the article contained a paragraph at the end that explained why “nonpartisan health care experts have concluded that Palin is wrong.”
Participants were then asked a second time about their belief in death panels and their support for the ACA. The results were somewhat surprising.
“The correction reduced belief in death panels and strong opposition to the reform bill among those who view Palin unfavorably and those who view her favorably but have low political knowledge,” wrote the study’s authors. “However, it backfired among politically knowledgeable Palin supports, who were more likely to believe in death panels and to strongly oppose reform if they received the correction.”
“These results,” the authors concluded, “underscore the difficulty of reducing misperceptions about health care reform among individuals with the motivation and sophistication to reject corrective information.”
‘A human phenomenon’
Non-Palin supporters — especially Democrats — shouldn’t get too smug about the study’s results, however.
“This is not a Republican phenomenon. It’s not a Democratic phenomenon. It’s a human phenomenon,” said co-author and Duke University behavioral scientist Dr. Peter Ubel in a video that accompanied the study’s release. “If we found something the Democrats believed strongly in that was false and showed that to be false, I think the same exact thing would have happened.”