Cognitive Science: Don’t Give False Claims a Free Pass

The mainstream porn industry can be viewed as a pervasive propaganda industry that spreads certain myths. Dr. Mary Anne Layden characterizes these as “Permission-Giving Beliefs”, such as “All men go to prostitutes”, “Women like sex mixed with violence” and “Children enjoy sex with adults”. Myths surrounding the latter are particularly visible in incest pornography, such as that sold by Capital Video (explicit language). The themes include “Incest is harmless”, “Coercion plays no role in incest”, and “Incest is a natural act”.

Wanda Richardson of the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter says that “pornography is probably the most extreme example of anti-women socialization that men receive in this society.”

If you look at a lot of pornography, it shows women being beaten, humiliated, tied up. It shows women tied and stabbed, poked, prodded and abused by devices, assaulted by several men or animals, and many ugly and degrading things. When you see a woman being battered, you see a lot of the same ugliness and violence at the same time. Not only do they portray women as liking and deserving this sexual abuse, it shows them as enjoying it, deserving it. And that is what one of the great myths of battery is, is that women deserve to be battered and that they enjoy it. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t stay…

Many of the women said that pornography is around their house. They say, he has been to the theaters, he does this and he does that and he sees these things. He comes home and he acts it out on me, or he makes me act it out also… We don’t believe that men are born to be sexually and physically abusive to women. They learn this. And the main place they learn this is through pornography. We see the victims of this every day.
In controlled experiments, the impact of porn on attitudes is dramatic. In one study published in 1988, Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant found:

Pornography consumption had a most powerful effect on evaluations of the desirability and viability of marriage. Endorsement of marriage as an essential institution dropped from 60.0% in the control groups to 38.8% in the treatment groups…

The most astonishing effect of prolonged pornography consumption on family values, however, concerns the desire to have children… [E]xposure to pornography reduced the desire to have children, and it did so in a uniform fashion. Male and female respondents, students and nonstudents alike, wanted fewer children on the average. The desire to have male offspring dropped 31%. The desire for female offspring, being lower overall, dropped by about twice that margin: 61%. This reduction proved specific to gender. Male respondents expressed little desire for female offspring altogether. It’s the desire of females for offspring of their own kind that, after consumption of pornography, shrank to one third of its normal strength…
Some of our opponents claim that publicizing information about porn is self-defeating. They say it attracts attention to pornographers and stimulates demand. For example, we found the following last week on YNOT (explicit), an adult industry news site. Theresa Reed (“darklady”) disparages the White Ribbon Against Pornography Campaign: “With the eager assistance of Morality in Media, more people than ever became aware of the presence of sexually explicit entertainment.”

As a recent article from makes clear, it’s good to confront myths, even if it publicizes them.

…meeting a charge (regardless of its truth or falsity) with silence increases the chances that others will believe the claim. Giving false claims a free pass, in other words, is more likely to result in false beliefs…
Here is the full article, reprinted with permission: Masthead
Cognitive Science and, or Why We (Still) Do What We Do

October 17, 2007

by Joe Miller

Have you heard about how Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet? What about how Iraq was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center? Or maybe the one about how George W. Bush has the lowest IQ of any U.S. president ever? Chances are pretty good that you might even believe one (or more) of these claims. And yet all three are false. At our stock in trade is debunking these sorts of false or misleading political claims, so when the  Washington Post told us that we might just be making things worse, it really made us stop and think.

A Sept. 4 article in the Post discussed several recent studies that all seemed to point to the same conclusion: Debunking myths can backfire because people tend to remember the myth but forget what the debunker said about it. As Hebrew University psychologist Ruth Mayo explained to the Post, “If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind. Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11.” That leaves myth busters like us with a quandary: Could we, by exposing political malarkey, just be cementing it in voters’ minds? Are we contributing to the problem we hope to solve?

Possibly. Yet we think that what we do is still necessary. And we think the facts back us up.

The Post story wasn’t all that surprising to those who follow the findings of cognitive science research, which tells us much of our thinking happens just below the level of consciousness. The more times we hear two particular bits of information associated, for example, the more likely it is that we’ll recall those bits of information. This is how we learn multiplication tables – and why we still know the Big Mac jingle.

Our brains also take some surprising shortcuts. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Virginia Tech psychologist Kimberlee Weaver shows that the more easily we recall something the more likely we are to think of it as being true. It’s a useful shortcut since, typically, easily recalled information really is true. But combine this rule with the brain’s tendency to better remember bits of information that are repeated frequently, and we can run into trouble: We’re likely to believe anything we hear repeated frequently enough. At we’ve noted how political spin-masters exploit this tendency ruthlessly, repeating dubious or false claims endlessly until, in the minds of many voters, they become true. Making matters worse, a study by Hebrew University’s Mayo shows that people often forget “denial tags.” Thus many people who hear the phrase “Iraq does not possess WMDs” will remember “Iraq” and “possess WMDs” while forgetting the “does not” part.

The counter to this requires an understanding of how it is that the brain forms beliefs.

In 1641, French philosopher René Descartes suggested that the act of understanding an idea comes first; we accept the idea only after evaluating whether or not it rings true. Thirty-six years later, the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza offered a very different account of belief formation. Spinoza proposed that understanding and believing happen simultaneously. We might come to reject something we held to be true after considering it more carefully, but belief happens prior to the examination. On Spinoza’s model, the brain forms beliefs automatically. Rejecting a belief requires a conscious act.

Unfortunately, not everyone bothers to examine the ideas they encounter. On the Cartesian model, that failure results in neither belief nor disbelief. But on the Spinozan model we end up with a lot of unexamined (and often false) convictions.

One might rightly wonder how a 17th-century philosophical dispute could possibly be relevant  to modern myth-busting. Interestingly, though, Harvard psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert designed a series of experiments aimed specifically at determining whether Descartes or Spinoza got it right. Gilbert’s verdict: Spinoza is the winner. People who fail to carry through the evaluation process are likely to believe whatever statements they read. Gilbert concludes that “[p]eople do have the power to assent, to reject, and to suspend their judgment, but only after they have believed the information to which they have been exposed.”

Gilbert’s studies show that, initially at least, we do believe everything we hear. But it’s equally obvious that we reject many of those beliefs, sometimes very quickly and other times only after considerable work. We may not be skeptical by nature, but we can nonetheless learn to be skeptical. Iowa State’s Gary Wells has shown that social interaction with those who have correct information is often sufficient to counter false views. Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by the University of Southern California’s Peter Kim shows that meeting a charge (regardless of its truth or falsity) with silence increases the chances that others will believe the claim. Giving false claims a free pass, in other words, is more likely to result in false beliefs (a notion with which 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry, who didn’t immediately respond to accusations by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about his Vietnam record, is all too familiar).

So, yes, a big ad budget often trumps the truth, but that doesn’t mean we should go slumping off in existential despair. You see, the Spinozan model shows that we will believe whatever we hear only if the process of evaluating those beliefs is somehow short-circuited. Humans are not helpless automatons in the face of massive propaganda. We may initially believe whatever we hear, but we are fully capable of evaluating and rejecting beliefs that turn out not to be accurate. Our brains don’t do this naturally; maintaining a healthy skeptical attitude requires some conscious effort on our part. It also requires a basic understanding of logic – and it requires accurate information. That’s where this Web site comes in.

If busting myths has some bad consequences, allowing false information to flow unchecked is far worse. Facts are essential if we are to overcome our brain’s tendency to believe everything it hears. As a species, we’re still pretty new to that whole process. Aristotle invented logic just 2,500 years ago – a mere blink of the eye when compared with the 200,000 years we Homo sapiens relied on our brain’s reflex responses to avoid being eaten by lions. We still have a long way to go. Throw in a tsunami of ads and Internet bluster and the path gets even harder, which is why we’re delighted to find new allies at and the Washington Post’s FactChecker. We’ll continue to bring you the facts. And you can continue to use them wisely.


Descartes, Rene. Principles of Philosophy. Tr. John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 [1644].

Gilbert, Daniel T., Romin W. Tafarodi and and Patrick S. Malone. “You Can’t Not Believe Everything Your Read.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65.2 (1993): 221-233.

Kim, Peter H., et al. “Silence Speaks Volumes: The Effectiveness of Reticence in Comparison to Apology and Denial for Responding to Integrity- and Competence-Based Trust Violations. Journal of Applied Psychology 92.4 (2007): 893-908.

Mayo, Ruth, Yaacov Schul and Eugene Burnstein. “‘I Am Not Guilty’ vs. ‘I Am Innocent’: Successful Negation May Depend on the Schema Used for its Encoding.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 40.4 (2004): 433-449.

Spinoza, Baruch de. Ethics. Tr. Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994 [1677].

Weaver, Kimberlee, et al. “Inferring the Popularity of an Opinion from its Familiarity: A Repetitive Voice Can Sound Like a Chorus.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92.5 (2007): 821-833.

Wright, E.F. and Gary L. Wells. “Does Group Discussion Attenuate the Dispositional Bias?” Journal of Applied Psychology 15 (1985): 531-546.


Copyright © 2003 – 2007, Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania’s staff, not the Annenberg Center, is responsible for this material.


See also:

Video Presentation: A Content Analysis of 50 of Today’s Top Selling Porn Films (explicit language)
Ana Bridges: “…I’m going to begin to talk about what it is that we found after looking at these 304 scenes in these 50 top selling pornographic films. In total in the 304 scenes we coded a total of 3,376 acts of aggression. That ends up averaging…to an aggressive act every minute and a half. The scenes on average contained eleven and a half acts of verbal or physical aggression…

“So how many scenes didn’t contain aggression? About 10%…

“…Less than 10% of the videos showed any kind of a positive act, and that included kissing… caressing happened maybe twice. Something like a verbal compliment, ‘Gosh, you look pretty’, not, ‘Slut bitch, come over here,’ that happened maybe five times in the 304 scenes. So we have a ratio of positive to negative behaviors of 1 to 9, which is not a sustainable, happy relationship.”

Gail Dines Presents: Pornography and Pop Culture (explicit)
“Males in our culture are socialized in a society where they are bombarded with the ‘fuck-me’ look, where it offers visual entitlement of ownership of women’s bodies. And what is rape and sexual assualt if not taking men up on that offer that she’s offering . The only trouble is that she’s not walking down the street, we are…

“So when Madonna in her ‘feminist’ way goes out and talks about women, puts out the message that women are indeed exactly as men thought they are (pornographic men), it’s all right for Madonna to say that because you know why, she travels with big, beefy…guys who protect her. It’s you and I walking in that fucking parking lot at night that [have] to deal with the guys that believe this…”

“Gagging is very popular… Now let me tell you where the kid gloves are off here. There is no pretense that she likes it… Look at her mascara running down her eyes. She’s crying. And they don’t wipe it away. Why not? Because part of the thrill of this is that it hurts her and she hates it. And this is for me a…new theme in pornography that I have only seen coming in the last year or two–where they are very clear, ‘You know we don’t give a shit whether the bitch likes it and in fact if she doesn’t, then it’s even better.’

“Now again, what does it mean for young boys and men to connect orgasm to these images, over and over and over again?”

Hustler Cartoons: Racism, Misogyny, Anti-Semitism, Homophobia, Pedophilia, Incest, Ridicule of Disabled People… (explicit)

Realities of Teen Prostitution Mock Notions of ‘Sex Work’, ‘Sex-Positive’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Empowerment’; Media Glamorizes Pimps
“I think in the last couple years we’ve seen a real increase in the glorification of pimp culture,” Lloyd says. “Girls growing up now, and boys too, are beginning to see this as cute and sexy or glamorous and not really understanding the realities of the sex industry…”

Young New Yorkers Talk about Porn’s Effect on their Relationships (explicit language)
Over beers recently, a 26-year-old businessman friend shocked me by casually remarking, “Dude, all of my friends are so obsessed with Internet porn that they can’t sleep with their girlfriends unless they act like porn stars.” A 20-year-old college student who bartends at a popular Soho lounge describes how an I-porn-filled adolescence shaped his perceptions of sex. “Looking at Internet porn was pretty much my sex education,” he says…

Porn Confuses Young Men about How to Behave
I travel around the country and speak to college audiences, both male and female, and mixed audiences, and one thing I find over and over again, in frank discussions, is that pornography is extremely influential in the lives of young boys growing up today, and girls, but specifically I speak to guys. This blizzard of images of women in degrading and humiliating positions, guys just come to think of that as normal.

Testimony from Northampton Shelter for Battered Women: Half of Abusers Use Pornography as a Part of the Abuse (explicit)
We have recently begun to formally ask the battered women who call us whether the abuser uses pornography and from this we conservatively estimate that at least 1/2 of the abusers use pornography as a part of the abuse. Battering is based on an issue of power and control, with the abuser using all kinds of methods to continually assert his power and control over the woman.

Porn’s “Verbatim” Accounts of the Pleasures of Child Sexual Abuse Don’t Square with Reality
Researchers estimate that, in our country, about 10% of boys and 25% of girls are sexually abused…

Testimony in Minneapolis: “Pornography in the home is insidious. Girls pick up the message, they act it out, they don’t know why they feel suicidal and crazy.”

Testimony in Minneapolis: Researcher sets out to prove angry fantasies are cathartic, finds the opposite
Nancy Steele’s study of convicted violent offenders found that fantasy did not reduce anger or the expression of aggression, contrary to the predictions of the psychoanalytic literature.

Porn Use Correlates with Infidelity, Prostitution, Aggression, Rape-Supportive Beliefs

The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research
[In a meta-analysis of 46 studies published in various academic journals,] Oddone-Paolucci, Genuis, and Violato found that exposure to pornographic material puts one at increased risk for developing sexually deviant tendencies [e.g., excessive or ritualistic masturbation], committing sexual offenses, experiencing difficulties in one’s intimate relationships, and accepting rape myths. In terms of the degree of risk, the analysis revealed a 31 percent increase in the risk of sexual deviancy, a 22 percent increase in the risk of sexual perpetration, a 20 percent increase in the risk of experiencing negative intimate relationships, and a 31 percent increase in the risk of believing rape myths…

Testimony in Minneapolis: With Growth of
Porn, Rapists Show Less Remorse

[T]he work of Dr. Natalie Shainess (psychiatrist of New York) and Dr. Frank Osanka [sic] (psychologist and child-abuse specialist, Chicago) show that convicted rapists who, even five to seven years ago, expressed remorse about their acts of violence, recently show no such remorse and often cite as a reason for their guiltlessness that “everyone knows women want to be raped; all the porn stuff proves that.”

Male Attitudes about Rape Can Be Learned…and Unlearned
There is now, however, some evidence that these negative changes in attitudes and perceptions regarding rape and violence against women not only can be eliminated but can be positively changed. Malamuth and Check (1983) found that if male subjects who had participated in such an experiment were later administered a carefully constructed debriefing, they actually would be less accepting of certain rape myths than were control subjects exposed to depictions of intercourse (without a debriefing)… These debriefings consisted of (1) cautioning subjects that the portrayal of the rape they had been exposed to is completely fictitious in nature, (2) educating subjects about the violent nature of rape, (3) pointing out to subjects that rape is illegal and punishable by imprisonment, and (4) dispelling the many rape myths that are perpetrated in the portrayal (e.g., in the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation, or that many women have an unconscious desire to be raped).

The effectiveness of the debriefing…indicated that even after seven months, subjects’ attitudes about sexual violence showed significant positive change compared to the preparticipation levels.

…if effective debriefings eliminate these negative effects, it would seem possible to develop effective “prebriefings” that would also counter the impact of such materials. Such programs could become part of sex education curricula for young males. Given the easy access and availability of many forms of sexual violence to young males today, such programs would go a long way toward countering the impact of such images.