Retelling of Stories Increases Bias

Interesting experiment shows that the retelling of stories increases conflict and bias.

For their study, which featured 196 undergraduates, the researchers created a narrative about a dispute between two groups of young people. It described four specific points of tension, but left purposely ambiguous the issue of which party was the aggressor, and “depicted the groups as equally blameworthy.”

Half of the participants read a version of the story in which the two hostile groups were from two Maryland cities. The other half read a version in which one group was from the city of Gaithersburg, but the other was identified as “your friends.”

Participants were assigned a position between one and four. Those in the first position read the initial version of the story, and then “re-told” it in their own words by writing their version of the events. This was passed on to the person in the second position, who did the same.

The procedure was repeated until all four people had created their own versions of the story. Each new version was then examined for subtle shifts in emphasis, blame, and wording.

The results: Each “partisan communicator”—that is, each student who wrote about the incident involving his or her “friends”—”contributed small distortions that, when accumulated, produced a highly biased, inaccurate representation of the original dispute,” the researchers write.

Standard disclaimer—that American undergraduates might not be the best representatives of our species—applies. But the results are not surprising. We tend to play up the us vs. them narrative when we tell stories. The result is particularly interesting in light of the echo chamber that Internet-based politics has become.

The actual paper is behind a paywall.

EDITED TO ADD (5/14): The paper.

Posted on May 8, 2014 at 7:32 AM30 Comments


B. D. Johnson May 8, 2014 9:57 AM

Standard disclaimer — that American undergraduates might not be the best representatives of our species — applies

Good lord, I hope not.

Regardless, it does make sense. When you tell a story a certain way you reinforce your memory of it until you start to think it actually happened that way. We’ve known that phenomenon for a while.

Charlie May 8, 2014 10:02 AM

The quoted portion above gives me the impression that the participants were actually instructed to bias the narrative — being told “one side of the conflict is your friends” + “retell this in your own words” sounds a like like saying “how would you advocate for your friends in this situation”.

Figureitout May 8, 2014 10:07 AM

So like the “telephone game”? Can be countered by preserving documents.

Alex May 8, 2014 10:16 AM

Information consumption also has a consumption chain, just like food does. Most news, for instance, comes from a set of facts on the ground, that get processed, and processed and processed again before it ends up on your television set boiled down into chunks for you to consume. But it also gets filled with additives— expert opinion, analysis, visualizations, you name it— before it gets to you. If this was food, a vegan would want none of it. They’d head straight to the data, to the source, to the facts, and try and get as much of that additive business out of their way.

Peter A. May 8, 2014 10:19 AM

My goodness, haven’t these these researches ever played the ‘whisper down the line’ game while in their childhoods?

Impossibly Stupid May 8, 2014 10:29 AM

“the echo chamber that Internet-based politics has become”

You can’t put the blame on the Internet for this one. It’s been the nature of politics to be self-serving for a very, very long time.

paul May 8, 2014 10:42 AM

I think that this kind of thing is also inherent in the telling of stories. If you’re a good storyteller (and most people at least try to be) you play down the stuff that’s boring or not salient, and you play up the parts that are interesting or important. So if you’re at all biased about what meets those definitions, you will naturally distort the story, at least according to an “objective” observer.
(This is one of the reasons that some journalistic-ethics types discourage reporter from holding stock, registering for a particular political party, or in some cases even from voting.)

Joe May 8, 2014 12:51 PM

“Standard disclaimer – that American undergraduates might not be the best representatives of our species – applies. But the results are not surprising.”

“Regardless, it does make sense.”

“Is this really surprising ?? ”

Even with Bruce’s disclaimer that may cast doubt on the study’s results, I find myself in total agreement! He is right! We ARE in an echo chamber!

pfogg May 8, 2014 1:41 PM

I would make a very similar argument, adding only that the things that make a story interesting are often structural (narrative hooks, build to climax, chain of logic, memorable details requiring emotional involvement), so that factual information will get reordered, adjusted to a clear cause-and-effect chain, and edited to amp up emotional content (humor, sympathy, outrage, etc.).

Adapting a story to play up sympathy for friends is an effective storytelling feature — the fact that this always goes one way (hence biasing) might be considered a side effect.

Note that the experimental conclusion “retelling stories increases conflict and bias” makes for a more emotionally involving story than “retelling stories refines them to less accurate, better stories”, so perhaps the influence of the need for good storytelling applies to academic publications?

no one in particular May 8, 2014 3:02 PM

So, we have:

  1. actual testing
  2. the results retold as a narrative
  3. the narrative was retold at
  4. this was retold by Bruce (look at the title of this post)

Isn’t anybody suspicious?

I personally try to detect bias when reading a story, so that when I retell I often reverse the direction of the bias.

OTOH, maybe I’m deluded as to my own objectiveness. Has anybody tried studying people’s perception of their own objectiveness?

Bruce Schneier May 8, 2014 4:17 PM

“The quoted portion above gives me the impression that the participants were actually instructed to bias the narrative — being told ‘one side of the conflict is your friends’ + ‘retell this in your own words’ sounds a like like saying ‘how would you advocate for your friends in this situation.'”

In general, when you notice something like this you should assume that the popular news article is wrong and the experiment is correct. Researchers who design these experiments spend a lot of time thinking about these things, and how to design the experiments to test the thing they want to test and nothing else. They’re not perfect, but in my experience when I notice something like this — some way the experiment goes wrong — it turns out they’ve thought of it already and I misunderstood the methodology.

DB May 8, 2014 5:41 PM

This is certainly like the childhood game of “telephone” and all that, so very unsurprising… however… it is more detail than just “people changing the story as it’s retold”…. the changes are not random, they’re related to personal bias. As such, not only are they very personal, they can also be largely predicted and/or influenced… That’s the difference from the traditional telephone game, which appears more random from the perspective of a non-deep-thinking observer.

Quick, think of a random number between 1 and 10. Guess what… that number you just chose was NOT random! Not only do people statically stay away from certain numbers more than others overall, but you additionally have your own personal bias in this respect. And additionally, if someone has controlled your experience earlier in the day and subconsciously shown you a certain number over and over again, you are FAR far more likely to choose that number than any other. All of this applies to many things, not just random numbers. Including storytelling changes. This is also why even so-called strong passwords made up by people are far weaker than one might think.

Skeptical May 8, 2014 5:45 PM

Very interesting.

Somewhat related: group polarization

Here’s how Cass Sunstein describes it:

The central empirical finding is that group discussion is likely to shift judgments toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by the median of predeliberation judgments. Yale Law Journal

In other words, if a group of like-minded people all favor moving x degrees towards more surveillance, then after discussing matters with each other they will likely move to a more extreme position.

So too, of course, if a group of like-minded people who all favor moving x degrees towards less surveillance discuss the matter among themselves; they’ll be likely to take a more extreme position as a result.

All of this ties in well with the concern that search engines, by tailoring results to what we want, magnify the phenomenon, which to some extent ties in well with concerns about Google.

More recently there was an interesting study showing that media outlets do the same thing, i.e. that the ideological slant of an outlet was not predicted by the politics of the owner, but by the politics of the desired customer.

joe May 8, 2014 7:41 PM

@DB – What if I pick (pi)^2? Isn’t that pretty random 🙂

More on topic. We are social beings and retelling stories in ways that evoke favorable emotional responses in our audience is what we do naturally. It takes a lot of discipline and a willingness to be boring to counteract that natural tendency. And one may not have much of an audience left when one is done.

Coyne Tibbets May 8, 2014 11:26 PM

What’s unexpected about this? My friends are, by definition, all good people. If there are other people who are involved in a dispute with my friends, then they must be the “enemy”, which means that the story needs to emphasize our rightness and their wrongness.

It’s been shown time and again that passing a story through the interpretation of multiple people always distorts the story. It is hardly surprising that the distortion increases when partisan bias is involved.

Look at the disparities today between conservative and liberal interpretations of the same event.

Wael May 9, 2014 2:08 AM


Quick, think of a random number between 1 and 10. Guess what… that number you just chose was NOT random!

I believe that to be true as well. I experimented with that long time ago, but not for checking randomness. Was walking one day in New York City, saw a street magician who did some really amazing tricks with a deck of cards. He showed us how to perform some of the tricks, and was clever enough to sell me a couple of “trick” decks of cards. To make a long story short, I’ll tell you only about one of the decks because it’s relevant. It was a normal deck, with one card replaced with another card that had the number 3&frac12, and had three and a half suites painted on it (I think diamonds or hearts). I don’t remember what the original trick was, but the trick I chose was to put the 3&frac12 card in a small envelop. I asked the spectator to think of a card, and I will pick out of the envelop half the card. They would say “any card?” And I would say, of course! But you only have one chance! Yup! Majority of people picked the random number “7” 🙂 they did not pick a 5 and they did not pick a face card. For some reason “7” was the popular pick! Perhaps because they wanted to be clever and make the trick fail, but that eliminates only the “even” cards, so it doesn’t fully explain to me why “7” was chosen.

Wael May 9, 2014 2:28 AM


Small correction. I gave the envelop to the spectator, asked him or her to write the chosen card on the envelop, and half of it will be inside the envelop. They took the card out, not me.

Winter May 9, 2014 3:56 AM

“Even with Bruce’s disclaimer that may cast doubt on the study’s results, I find myself in total agreement! He is right! We ARE in an echo chamber!”

I disagree.

Wherever I go on the internet, people disagree. What is worse, no one seems to agree with me. Even here, people disagree with me, and with each other.

The only way I can hear an echo is going to a deep well.

Bob Puli May 9, 2014 4:57 PM


“In other news, scientists discovered that water is wet!”

Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer.

I was trying to be funny!

But I did click on the link you provided –

I might be dumb and completely missed the point – but the cover page of the book actually has the tag – “How Common Sense Fails Fails Us” – yes – with two “fails”. Is that a fail?

Aspie May 10, 2014 2:56 AM

  1. Al ie repeated often enough becomes the truth.
  2. To hide a lie surround it with a lot of little truths.

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