14 June 2024

A collaboration between doctoral researcher Laura Kranz and Illustrator Jean Donaldson. Edited by Jonathan Burgess.

You’ve probably had to study for a test or exam at some point in your life. When faced with a lot of material, how do you go about learning it? Perhaps you listen to it through your headphones while commuting because you’re an auditory learner.

But are you?

The idea that everybody has a specific learning style (visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic) is remarkably persistent. It seems to make sense that people learn best when they study information in their given learning style. However, there’s no evidence to support learning styles. Hundreds of studies in cognitive science show that people learn best when we receive new information in multiple ways, but that people don’t learn any better in their preferred style.

If you believe that learning styles are a thing, you’re not alone. Learning styles is a pervasive myth – in my research, more than 95% of people believe it to be true. We are taught it in schools, and unless you’ve specifically researched it yourself, or have been told it’s a myth, you have no reason not to believe it to be true.

People believe many false ideas. Most are pretty benign – it makes minimal difference to society if I believe that we swallow eight spiders a year in our sleep or that chewing gum stays in your stomach for seven years if you swallow it. But some false beliefs can have harmful impacts, like reduced vaccination rates or increased greenhouse gases. We all benefit from correcting myths that cause harm.

An animation of a spider dropping from the ceiling while somebody sleeps.

Attempting to replace belief in myths with correct information can be frustrating, but there are strategies that can help. One recommendation from research – including my own – is to mention a myth when debunking it. By mentioning a myth you are encouraging people to mentally link the pre-existing false belief with the correct information.

When people believe a false idea, they have a representation of this in their brain. When they are told new information that counters a pre-existing belief, the new information doesn’t simply erase and replace the old belief. Instead the new information forms its own, independent, representation in the brain.

Even if people believe the new information, the old false information is still around and can continue to influence thinking and behaviour. If somebody has a mental link between a false belief and a correction then when they bring to mind the false belief they are more likely to bring to mind the correction too. This reduces the likelihood that they use the false information to guide thinking and behaviour.

An animation of a brain making new connections.

In my research I look at how to effectively correct scientific misinformation – both controversial myths (such as myths about vaccines) and non-controversial myths (such as myths about learning styles). We used to think that mentioning a myth when debunking it could be harmful. We know that people use familiarity as a proxy for truth – that is, the more familiar an idea feels to a person, the more likely they are to believe it to be true.

By mentioning a myth when debunking it we thought we might inadvertently strengthen belief in the myth by boosting its familiarity. However, it turns out that the relative benefit of mentally linking the myth and correction overrides any potential familiarity effect. This looks to be the case for both controversial and non-controversial myths.

Even when people don’t shift their beliefs to be in line with new information, people don’t tend to show increased belief in a myth when it is mentioned in debunking efforts. This is great news for science communicators: you don’t need to avoid mentioning a myth when debunking it.


Laura Kranz is a TPM Whānau member who has been exploring the role of cognition and emotion in science communication for her doctoral research.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and native bird fanatic based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at https://jeanmanudesign.com/.