Why do we believe fake news?

Misinformation is a growing concern across the globe, especially in the current health crisis. From vaccines to climate change, science itself has been in the firing line. IAST cognitive psychologist Bence Bago wants to understand what makes us susceptible to untruths in the age of the infodemic. Are people worse at identifying fake news when headlines are emotionally provocative? Is political ideology to blame for the spread of anti-science beliefs? By studying the mechanics of human thinking, he hopes to inform policymakers and help people make better decisions.

Popularized as a term by Donald Trump, fake news has found a potent vector in social media platforms. But what make us inclined to believe its false content? One common explanation in the media is that fake news gains traction by playing on our emotions. This idea logically follows from theoretical research identifying emotions as a potential cause for erroneous intuitive responses. Relatedly, Bence’s 2020 study (‘Fake news, fast and slow’) found that
deliberation – a thought process requiring working memory and cognitive control – reduces belief in false (but not true) news headlines. But this account lacks direct supporting evidence.
In a new working paper, Bence joined former IAST political scientist Leah Rosenzweig and MIT researchers to test whether emotions predict susceptibility to misinformation. Using correlational data, they found evidence that Americans who feel an emotion after reading a headline are more likely to believe false headlines. There was one surprising exception: anger appeared to increase readers’ ability to discern the truth. This is broadly consistent with Leah’s research among Nigerian social media users, although she found that anger to be negatively associated with overall belief in Covid-19 headlines.
In additional experiments, Bence’s team found little credible evidence that emotion regulation techniques are an effective tool against misinformation. One potential reason is that in focusing on suppressing their emotions, readers were distracted from other cues that could help determine the veracity of headlines.

The proliferation of fake news has also prompted fears that the authority of the scientific method is under threat, with catastrophic consequences for responsible public policy. What explains the popularity of anti-science views? Why, for example, is disbelief in man-made climate change so common, despite broad scientific consensus to the contrary?
A common explanation for anti-science beliefs is that people use politically motivated, or “System 2”, reasoning to reject beliefs that threaten their partisan identities. Ideology has often been linked to an anti-science stance. For example, in a 2021 paper (‘Beliefs About COVID-19’) Bence and his coauthors find US political conservatism to be strongly associated with weaker mitigation behaviors, lower Covid-19 risk perceptions, greater misperceptions,
and stronger vaccination hesitancy. It has also been argued that political differences in scientific beliefs are exacerbated by reasoning capacity. For example, those with greater science literacy have been found to have more polarized beliefs about stemcell research, the big bang, and evolution.

Other explanations suggest that people reject complex scientific claims because they lack basic scientific knowledge – such as the fact that electrons are smaller than atoms – or the ability to think analytically. For example, studies have found that those who reason more analytically are more likely to endorse evolution. As with research on motivation and identity, however, it is unclear if these results are specific to particular science-related beliefs.
For a new preprint, Bence and his coauthors tested these competing explanations across a wide range of controversial issues, using two samples of Americans. They found very little partisan disagreement to support the motivated reasoning and identity protection accounts. “Political ideology was not broadly predictive of science-related beliefs and cognitive sophistication – that is, the ability to think reflectively, openly, and skeptically – was not consistently related to anti-science beliefs for any politically contentious issue,” they write. “Thus, it appears that previous work in this area has been overstated and overgeneralized.”
In two follow-up experiments, when participants were asked to evaluate arguments about global warming in a politically motivated way, polarization decreased among cognitively sophisticated individuals. As Bence suggested in a previous paper (‘Reasoning about climate change’, 2020), the apparent association between polarization and cognitive sophistication may be due to people who are higher in sophistication being more engaged with the task, or perhaps having stronger prior beliefs.
The researchers found strong, consistent evidence linking cognitive sophistication to pro-science beliefs. Even more significantly, they found that basic scientific knowledge is the best predictor of pro-science beliefs. This research has important policy implications. Rather than fretting about political divisions, educators and policymakers should focus on improving basic science literacy and critical thinking to strengthen the role of science in the public debate.

Article published in IAST Magazine #19, Spring 2022

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash