‘Fake news’ study finds incorrect information can’t be corrected simply by pointing out it’s false

New research suggests that higher intelligence can act as a buffer against fake news.

The study, published in the scientific journal Intelligence, found that some people are better at revising their attitude after learning that information they received was false.

“I like to conduct societal relevant research. Many people are concerned about the impact of fake news, and although spreading fake news is certainly not new, recent evolutions such as social media platforms allow every individual to spread false information easily and on a very large scale,” explained Jonas De keersmaecker of Ghent University, the corresponding author of the study.

“As such, I was interested in whether the impact of false information can be undone by pointing out that this information was incorrect.”

The study of 390 participants found that cognitive ability — as measured by a vocabulary test — was linked to the ability to adjust one’s attitude after being notified of false information.

“Our study examined how people adjust their attitudes after they learn that crucial information on which their initial evaluation was based is incorrect, and to what extent cognitive ability influences this correction,” De keersmaecker told PsyPost.

“The results of our experiment indicated that individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability, were less responsive to this corrective new information, and the initial exposure to the incorrect information had a persevering influence on their attitudes.”

In the study, one group of participants read about a woman who was married, worked at a hospital, and had been arrested for stealing drugs and selling them. They were then asked to to evaluate the woman on several dimensions, such as trustworthiness. After this, the participants were told that the information regarding the stealing and dealing of drugs was incorrect. Then the participants were asked to evaluate the woman again.

A control group followed a similar procedure, but never read the “fake news” about the woman being arrested and selling drugs.

“People adjusted their attitudes, but the adjusted attitudes of individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability were still more negative compared to the evaluations of their counterparts who were never exposed to the incorrect negative information,” De keersmaecker explained.

“Contrary, individuals with higher levels of cognitive ability made more appropriate attitude adjustments. Their adjusted attitudes were similar to those who had never received false information.”

The researchers controlled for open-mindedness and authoritarianism as potential confounding variables.

The findings highlight the difficulty in fighting against fake news.

“Our study suggests that, for individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability, the influence of fake news cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this news was fake,” De keersmaecker said. “This finding leads to the question, can the impact of fake news can be undone at all, and what would be the best strategy?”

The study, “‘Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions“, was co-authored by Arne Roets.