A pioneering group of researchers have discovered why our minds believe falsehoods such as fake news, and have developed a method to stop it.
Did you know that vaccines cause autism, and that McDonald’s doesn’t use real chicken in its nuggets?
How about that wind farms cause cancer, and that climate change is a hoax carried out by those schmucks in the scientific community?
Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve trained your brain to recognise when the news isn’t quite right.
A report published in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science has found that there are cognitive factors at play that cause pieces of misinformation to “stick” in our brains.
Better still, researchers have identified just how we can train our brains to prevent that cranial spam from coming in, in what has been dubbed a “psychological vaccine”. As it turns out, often the reason why misinformation – even the most obvious of falsehoods – can stick in the brain, is that the process of rejecting information actually requires a cognitive effort be made.
Put simply, it is much easier to simply accept what you have heard as true, than it is for your brain to measure the plausibility and source of the information. This is especially true when the information is on a topic that isn’t particularly important to you, or if you have other things on your mind.
Better yet, even when our brains are analysing incoming information, the process is far from objective. Unlike your high school teachers, who seemed to sniff out your Wikipedia sources effortlessly, your brain has a much less rigorous pub test.
Often, the brain will focus on whether the information fits in with what someone already believes in, whether it makes a coherent “story” with what someone already knows, whether the source is credible, and whether or not other people believe it.
It is especially difficult for our brains to filter out the fake from the real if that misinformation conforms to our pre-existing political, religious or social point of view. This is why ideological and personal worldviews can be especially difficult to overcome.
Think the “birther” scandal around Barack Obama’s supposed overseas birth, and the foothold it took among the Republican party.
Things get even better from there, with attempts to retract misinformation often amplifying someone’s belief in the alternative fact.
This is in spite of the individual generally being aware that the information they have internalised is based in falsehoods.
University of Western Australia psychological scientist Stephan Lewandowsky says this acknowledgement of misinformation can be especially damaging for both the individual and the people around them.
“This persistence of misinformation has fairly alarming implications in a democracy because people may base decisions on information that, at some level, they know to be false,” according to Lewandowsky. “At an individual level, misinformation about health issues […] can do a lot of damage. At a societal level, persistent misinformation about political issues (e.g., Obama’s health care reform) can create considerable harm. On a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action.”
“We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’… The idea is to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation, so the next time people come across it they are less susceptible.”
Things aren’t all bad, however. Just as science has found the damage fake news can cause, and the pitfalls involved in trying to set someone straight, science has also found an approach that won’t lead to immediate rejection of the facts.
This involves the provision of a narrative, replacing the gap left behind by misinformation; a focus on the facts, rather than the myths; presentation of the information as simply and briefly as possible; consideration of the listener’s beliefs; and the repetition of the desired information.
This focus on removing the narrative – the bias – someone holds around misinformation tends to be much more successful than the simple presentation of an alternative view.
If that doesn’t work, you can try administering a psychological “inoculation”, vaccinating someone against fake news by providing a small dose of fake news with the facts, much in the same way a virus is combated by the introduction of a controlled dose of that same virus.
Researchers found that the repetition of pure fact around climate change was not enough to sway believers, who would ultimately return to the misinformation they knew come the end of discussion.
However, with the addition of climate change misinformation – by way of introducing participants to the distortion factors used by certain groups – opinions were shifted, and remained that way even in the face of repeated fake news exposure afterwards.
Published in the Global Challenges journal, the “vaccination” study was conducted by researchers from the universities of Cambridge, UK, Yale and George Mason in the US.
Lead author Dr Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge, says that misinformation spreads and replicates like a virus.
“We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by pre-emptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience. A warning that helps preserve the facts,” he said. “The idea is to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation, so the next time people come across it they are less susceptible… It’s uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society. A lot of people’s attitudes toward climate change aren’t very firm. They are aware there is a debate going on, but aren’t necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one.”
Now, naturally, the opinion vs fact debate rears its head at this point, and the morality aspect of trying to change what someone believes in may be as sticky as the fake news researchers hope to combat.
However, when someone holds misinformed beliefs that cause considerable harm to people around them – in the form of denying their children proper medical care – or the world we share – by denial of any human role in climate change – any argument for the sanctity of opinion goes out the window.
With that in mind, and the tools at your disposal, go forth. Vaccinate the anti-vaxxers. Warm the global warming deniers.
Because fake news doesn’t just hurt the individual; it harms all of us.