Gordon Pennycook, a leading researcher into the psychology of misinformation at the University of Regina, Canada, asked participants to consider a mixture of true and false headlines about the coronavirus outbreak. When they were specifically asked to judge the accuracy of the statements, the participants said the fake news was true about 25% of time. When they were simply asked whether they would share the headline, however, around 35% said they would pass on the fake news – 10% more.
“It suggests people were sharing material that they could have known was false, if they had thought about it more directly,” Pennycook says. (Like much of the cutting-edge research on Covid-19, this research has not yet been peer-reviewed, but a pre-print has been uploaded to the Psyarxiv website.)
Perhaps their brains were engaged in wondering whether a statement would get likes and retweets rather than considering its accuracy. “Social media doesn’t incentivise truth,” Pennycook says. “What it incentivises is engagement.”
Or perhaps they thought they could shift responsibility on to others to judge: many people have been sharing false information with a sort of disclaimer at the top, saying something like “I don’t know if this is true, but…”. They may think that if there’s any truth to the information, it could be helpful to friends and followers, and if it isn’t true, it’s harmless – so the impetus is to share it, not realising that sharing causes harm too.
Whether it’s promises of a homemade remedy or claims about some kind of dark government cover-up, the promise of eliciting a strong response in their followers distracts people from the obvious question.
This question should be, of course: is it true?
Classic psychological research shows that some people are naturally better at overriding their reflexive responses than others. This finding may help us understand why some people are more susceptible to fake news than others.
Researchers like Pennycook use a tool called the “cognitive reflection test” or CRT to measure this tendency. To understand how it works, consider the following question:
- Emily’s father has three daughters. The first two are named April and May. What is the third daughter’s name?
Did you answer June? That’s the intuitive answer that many people give – but the correct answer is, of course, Emily.
To come to that solution, you need to pause and override that initial gut response. For this reason, CRT questions are not so much a test of raw intelligence, as a test of someone’s tendency to employ their intelligence by thinking things through in a deliberative, analytical fashion, rather than going with your initial intuitions. The people who don’t do this are often called “cognitive misers” by psychologists, since they may be in possession of substantial mental reserves, but they don’t “spend” them.
Cognitive miserliness renders us susceptible to many cognitive biases, and it also seems to change the way we consume information (and misinformation).
When it came to the coronavirus statements, for instance, Pennycook found that people who scored badly on the CRT were less discerning in the statements that they believed and were willing to share.
Matthew Stanley, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has reported a similar pattern in people’s susceptibility to the coronavirus hoax theories. Remember that around 13% of US citizens believed this theory, which could potentially discourage hygiene and social distancing. “Thirteen percent seems like plenty to make this [virus] go around very quickly,” Stanley says.
Testing participants soon after the original YouGov/Economist poll was conducted, he found that people who scored worse on the CRT were significantly more susceptible to these flawed arguments.
These cognitive misers were also less likely to report having changed their behaviour to stop the disease from spreading – such as handwashing and social distancing.
Stop the spread
Knowing that many people – even the intelligent and educated – have these “miserly” tendencies to accept misinformation at face value might help us to stop the spread of misinformation.
Given the work on truthiness – the idea that we “nod along when thoughts flow smoothly” – organisations attempting to debunk a myth should avoid being overly complex.
Instead, they should present the facts as simply as possible – preferably with aids like images and graphs that make the ideas easier to visualise. As Stanley puts it: “We need more communications and strategy work to target those folks who are not as willing to be reflective and deliberative.” It’s simply not good enough to present a sound argument and hope that it sticks.
If they can, these campaigns should avoid repeating the myths themselves. The repetition makes the idea feel more familiar, which could increase perceptions of truthiness. That’s not always possible, of course. But campaigns can at least try to make the true facts more prominent and more memorable than the myths, so they are more likely to stick in people’s minds. (It is for this reason that I’ve given as little information as possible about the hoax theories in this article.)
When it comes to our own online behaviour, we might try to disengage from the emotion of the content and think a bit more about its factual basis before passing it on. Is it based on hearsay or hard scientific evidence? Can you trace it back to the original source? How does it compare to the existing data? And is the author relying on the common logical fallacies to make their case?
These are the questions that we should be asking – rather than whether or not the post is going to start amassing likes, or whether it “could” be helpful to others. And there is some evidence that we can all get better at this kind of thinking with practice.
Pennycook suggests that social media networks could nudge their users to be more discerning with relatively straightforward interventions. In his experiments, he found that asking participants to rate the factual accuracy of a single claim primed participants to start thinking more critically about other statements, so that they were more than twice as discerning about the information they shared.
In practice, it might be as simple as a social media platform providing the occasional automated reminder to think twice before sharing, though careful testing could help the companies to find the most reliable strategy, he says.
There is no panacea. Like our attempts to contain the virus itself, we are going to need a multi-pronged approach to fight the dissemination of dangerous and potentially life-threatening misinformation.
And as the crisis deepens, it will be everyone’s responsibility to stem that spread.
David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap, which examines why smart people act foolishly and the ways we can all make wiser decisions. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
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