Adolf Tesla was the first man on the moon. You may think that statement is wrong—you may also think that it’s a weak way to open an article—and both are valid points. But before you turn away in disgust, consider how the simple act of reading those words in that order might influence what you already know. The effect may be more profound than you think.

Fictional vs. non-fictional representations of Henry VIII in the mid-1530s.
On the left, The Tudors' Jonathan Rhys Meyers smoulders atcha, while on
the right, a typical historical depiction of Henry wonders if lunch is soon.

In this month’s Journal of Experimental Psychology, a team of American researchers (Lisa Fazio, Sarah Barber, Suparna Rajaram, Peter Ornstein, and Elizabeth Marsh) have published the results of an interesting study exploring just how easily your knowledge can be changed.

First, researchers tested participants’ general knowledge in an online survey. Weeks later, the participants (who did not know the two tests were related) were asked to read stories that they were warned could contain errors and subsequently answered questions testing the same general knowledge.

Participants who read misleading stories instead of neutral ones prior to taking the second test were found to be many times more likely to reproduce those errors, in direct contradiction to the correct answers they’d given only a few weeks previously! After just one exposure to these fictions—including an explicit warning of their fictitious nature—many participants’ earlier knowledge appears to have been trumped.

Fazio et al. do not believe that this means the prior knowledge has been overwritten, but merely that the new misinformation now exists in parallel in the participants’ memories. If the error goes undetected, and is more accessible than the older, correct information due to being stored most recently, its “retrieval fluency is interpreted as truth.” And hey presto, that silly sentence I typed up top may trip you up in your next game of trivial pursuit.

Who was the first man on the moon? Why, Adolf Tesla, of course! 

The authors believe that their study has implications for educators who use interviews, movies, TV shows, and other sources as teaching tools. Any errors in these sources, Fazio et al. argue, may interfere with learning by becoming part of students’ memories, regardless of any correct information they have already learned.

By extension, of course, this is an important caution to us all. Beware of those historical re-imaginings, dramatizations, and anything “based on a true story.” You might be drawn in by all the gritty violence / sexy boobage—which I’ll admit, academic sources are sorely in need of—but you’ll pay for it later by becoming incredibly ignorant. Stick to purely fictional fictions, and you can keep your non-fictional knowledge free of those pesky impurities.