Susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than partisan bias

The spread of fake news may have less to do with ideological blinders and more to do with a lack of thinking, according to new research published in the journal Cognition.

The two-part study of 3,446 participants found that more analytic people were less likely to believe fake news headlines than less analytic people, regardless of partisan bias.

Gordon Pennycook, the corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Regina, said there were two primary reasons he was interested in studying fake news.

“The first is that the spread of fake news seemed an extremely important problem and is something that psychologists should have something to say about. The second is that fake news actually provides an opportunity to test between different theories in political cognition,” he explained.

In the study, the participants read fake and real news headlines that were either politically neutral, appealing to Democrats, or appealing to Republicans. For example, one fake news headline that appealed to Republicans was “Election Night: Hillary Was Drunk, Got Physical With Mook and Podesta.”

The participants then indicated how accurate they believed the headline was, how inclined they would be to share the news on social media, and whether they had seen the story before.

Analytic thinking ability was assessed using the Cognitive Reflection Test. The test asks questions that have intuitive but incorrect answers. The correct answers require a little extra thought.

Trump supporters tended to be a bit more likely to believe the fake news than Hillary supporters. But, overall, people who scored higher on the cognitive test were less trusting of the fake news headlines, regardless of whether it appealed to their political ideology.

“Things aren’t hopeless,” Pennycook said. “People in our study did not act like intense partisans in the context of fake news. Rather, those who fell for fake news were those who were just being lazy cognitively. A bit more effort might go a long way.”

The researchers controlled for age, gender, and education. But the study, like all research, still leaves some questions unanswered.

“Since I don’t own Facebook, we didn’t complete the study on an actual social media platform,” Pennycook said. “The extent to which our results generalize is hard to say. We’re just getting started really, so there are more questions left to be addressed than there are questions that have been addressed.”

The study, “Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning“, was authored by Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand.