Ageism, inaccurate media portrayals, and lack of adequate education on aging all combine to produce a number of misconceptions about aging. In light of the negative impacts that such misconceptions can have, it is increasingly important to take steps to dispel these misconceptions.
In order to combat such misconceptions, the AARP has launched the #DisruptAging public education campaign, and a recent article in Public Policy and Aging Report explained how myths about aging can be effectively debunked.
This article notes that “Merely seeking to communicate accurate information is not sufficient, as misinformation can nullify the positive effect of accurate science communication.” The author points out that attempts at refuting misinformation can produce “backfire effects” that may reinforce the misconceptions. As a result, additional strategies are needed to effectively refute misinformation about aging.
The author’s first recommendation is to keep factual information as simple as possible, preferably as simple or simpler than the misinformation it aims to replace. This helps create what is known as a “sticky” message. A number of aids can help make a message stickier, including the use of graphics.
Another recommendation is to minimize potential backfiring by providing a warning or disclaimer before mentioning the myth that is being dispelled. This makes someone less likely to be influenced by the misinformation.
The other main technique is to explain the fallacy or fallacies that underlie a myth. A variation on this is to explain how the misinformation came about in the first place.
Finally, whenever possible, it is important for the source of the factual information be trustworthy, and perceived as having expertise.
These steps have been used effectively in efforts to replace the fallacy that longevity is out of our control with the factual message that lifestyle plays a significant role in determining longevity. Another successful example is dispelling the myth that older people are unhappy, and instead communicating that, on average, happiness peaks when people are in their 70s.
By employing these strategies, it is possible to more effectively combat misperceptions about aging.
Cook J. How to effectively debunk myths about aging and other misconceptions. Public Policy and Aging Report (2017); 27(1): 13–17.