Ever since the birth of human society, much of the information communicated is not just fact, but narrative – qualitative interpretations of objective facts or events (Shiller 2017; 2020). As people become increasingly concerned about the detrimental effects of biased narratives on modern society, such as polarization and echo chambers, people are also becoming more aware of the biased narratives used by the media (Gallup, 2020). A recent study (Liu and Zhang, 2023) tackled a novel question in this context: whether we can effectively guard ourselves against biased narratives, especially when we are consciously aware of them.
The research centered around an innovative online experiment involving narratives about the use of genetically modified (GMO) mosquitoes in disease control – a topic carefully chosen for its relative obscurity to most people. This obscurity ensured that pre-existing strong opinions would play a minimal role, providing the best chance to counteract the narratives. Researchers crafted two different narratives based on the same set of facts – one narrative favoring the use of GMO mosquitoes, and the other opposing it. Study participants were then randomly assigned to read one of these narratives. Crucially, the participants were explicitly told that these narratives were biased and that participants were randomly assigned to one of the narratives.
So, is awareness enough? Unfortunately, the answer is, not really. Despite knowing that the narrative was biased and randomly assigned, participants reported attitudes that align significantly with the narrative that they read. Moreover, the opportunity to engage with balanced arguments, a scenario resembling real-world situations where individuals seek additional information, did surprisingly little to alter participants' views, once they were influenced by the biased narratives. This persistence underscores the power of the first narrative that we encounter in shaping our beliefs, and suggests that simply being aware of a bias is not enough to guard against it.
A natural question is why this is the case. Liu and Zhang (2023) tease out possible channels and find that participants tend to find arguments that were consistent with their initially assigned narrative more convincing. This indicates a very surprising form of 'induced' confirmation bias, where initial exposure to a narrative already influences the evaluation of subsequent information, irrespective of an individual's awareness of the bias.
Delving deeper, it becomes clear that the battle against biased narratives is not only about awareness, but also about the order and manner in which information is presented. The study therefore carries implications for how we approach media consumption and information dissemination. It suggests that efforts to combat misinformation and biased narratives need to focus on ensuring balanced exposure from the outset. Preventing polarization and biased narratives may be more effective if done at the initial stages of information exposure, rather than trying to correct or counteract them later.
Overall, the study offers a critical perspective on our interaction with narratives in an information-rich society. It emphasizes the need for critical evaluation of the first stories that we encounter about a topic, and the importance of balanced exposure to multiple viewpoints. As we navigate a sea of information on a daily basis, understanding the persistent influence of narratives and our vulnerability to them is not just an academic exercise, but a necessary skill for informed decision-making in the modern world.
Gallup (2020). Bias in others’ news a greater concern than bias in own news. Technical report,
Liu, M., and Zhang, S. (2023), The Persistent Effects of Narratives: Evidence from an Online Experiment, Working paper, LMU Munich.
Shiller, R. J. (2017). Narrative economics. American Economic Eeview, 107(4):967–1004.
Shiller, R. J. (2020). Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events. Princeton University Press
This text is jointly published by "Researching Misunderstandings" and BSE INSIGHTS.