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Fake Quotations and the Confirmation Bias

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consutlant
posted Sunday Nov 03, 2013 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consutlant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

You can read my full bio at http://www.BoBennett.com.

One of the more powerful techniques to win people to your way of thinking is by using quotations of respected people that support your position.  Choosing a poignant quotation to back up your argument is such a powerful influencer, that some people, some of the time, make up quotations realizing that very few people will check the authenticity of the quotation.  Others might mistakenly attribute an actual quotation to the wrong person, and some people, through common human imperfection, may copy a quotation incorrectly thereby altering the meaning—all of which can fall under the general category of fake quotations.  The confirmation bias is our tendency to accept information that confirms our existing beliefs much less critically than information that conflicts with our beliefs.  When we look for quotations that support our position, we tend not to care so much about accuracy—this is a major problem in a world with the Internet. The Internet is to misinformation as a shared hypodermic needle is to AIDS—a mechanism for rapid distribution.  The cure is a simple and only takes a moment in most cases—check the source of the quotation.

Case Study: Adolf Hitler—the "Hater of Christianity"

There is a long standing debate as to whether Adolf Hitler was a Christian or not.  Understandably, nobody wants their ingroup associated with him, so atheists tend to seek information that supports the claim that Hitler was Christian and Christians tend to seek information that support the claim that Hitler was an atheist—or at least not Christian.  A common quotation that one can find on Christian websites and even in printed Christian books is:

"I regard Christianity as the most fatal, seductive lie that has ever existed." -Adolf Hitler

Powerful, poignant, and certainly a blow to the common atheist claim that Hitler was a Christian.  There is just one problem... it's a fake quotation.

A quick Internet search of this quote reveals that it is actually a quotation from Nietzsche and comes from "The Complete Works Friedrich Nietzsche Vol XIV : The Will to Power: An Attempted Transvaluation of All Values," which can be found online—but we cannot stop there.  It is possible that Hitler was just quoting Nietzsche, and he still said those words.  The next step: follow the citations to the original (primary) source.

Unless a quotation is very well known, it is good practice to include a source after the quotation (e.g., "as written in... page X").  While many of the websites that use this quotation fail to cite it, many do provide a secondary source (a source that claims to quote the primary source)—this is like claiming Bigfoot exists because some guy told you he saw him.  As we will soon see, there are many problems with secondary sources.

"I regard Christianity as the most fatal, seductive lie that has ever existed."—*Adolf Hitler, quoted in Larry Azar, Twentieth Century in Crisis (1990), p. 155.

When you are quoting a source, make sure you took the quotation from the source.  This quotation, with this citation, has been mindlessly copied from Christian website to Christian website without anyone checking the source.  How do I know?  How can I make such a claim? Because I bothered to check the source and the author was quoting Nietzsche, not Hitler.  This was from a 1990 book of a deceased author, that is out of print, and not available online electronically.  A great tool found at http://www.worldcat.org/ allows one to search libraries around the world for any book.  I found a few libraries that actually had a copy of this book, and Ed Helmrich from Iona College was kind enough to scan page 155 of Azar's book and send it to me:

As one can see, whomever originally cited this book, made an error.  The author, Larry Azar, clearly was quoting Nietzsche.  The research of Kahneman (2013) might offer an explanation as to what happened here: the first person to quote Azar's book was searching for confirmatory information for his or her position that Hitler was not a Christian.  As a result, the person who quoted the book was relying on system 1 thinking (automatic, non-critical—also known as heuristic processing) and simply did not read the passage carefully enough to see that Nietzsche was actually being quoted.

We cannot be expected to do this kind of research for every quotation we come across, so we should apply a reasonable amount of skepticism to all quotations.  To borrow from Carl Sagan, extraordinary quotations require extraordinary evidence.  Most important, before you use a quotation or even share one in Social Media, you may want to do a quick Internet search and check the source.  Be a debunker of misinformation, not a propagator of it.


Rules for quoting are ubiquitous.  In short, quotations must be accurate and accurately represent the intent of the author. This article shows the danger of copying a quotation from a secondary source.  For more details on the rules of quoting, see http://wps.prenhall.com/hss_understand_plagiarism_1/6/1668/427099.cw .


Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Quoting Sources. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://wps.prenhall.com/hss_understand_plagiarism_1/6/1668/427099.cw/

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