New research provides evidence that delusion-prone individuals, dogmatic individuals, and religious fundamentalists are more likely to believe fake news. The study, which appears in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, suggests that the inability to detect false information is related to a failure to be actively open-minded.
The rise of online social media has led to growing concerns about the spread of unsubstantiated rumors, misleading political propaganda, and blatantly false articles designed to create viral web traffic. Even the U.S. Army has become involved in efforts to understand and combat disinformation in cyberspace.
“Our interest in fake news is grounded in a general interest in understanding the common experience of believing things that are not true,” explained study author Michael V. Bronstein of Yale University.
“Some false beliefs are relatively harmless (e.g., children believing in the tooth fairy), while others might cause significant distress (e.g., incorrectly believing that others are trying to hurt you) or may be potentially harmful to society as a whole (e.g., false beliefs about global warming or vaccines).”
“Research suggests that vulnerability to several different kinds of false beliefs may be determined (at least in part) by similar cognitive factors. For example, prior to our study, belief in fake news and belief in delusions had separately been associated with less engagement in analytic thinking,” Bronstein said.
“This led us to hypothesize that belief in fake news and delusions may share a common mechanism, and therefore be correlated with each other — which is what we found. By examining factors that have been associated with multiple different kinds of false beliefs, we might better understand why people endorse false beliefs and why they often persist in these beliefs despite evidence against them.”
“Through this increased understanding, we hope to contribute to the eventual development of interventions that might more effectively and efficiently reduce individuals’ vulnerability to false beliefs that may be distressing or may be harmful to them or to society,” Bronstein told PsyPost.
In two experiments with 948 participants in total, Bronstein and his colleagues found that people who scored higher on measures of delusionality, dogmatism, religious fundamentalism, and scored lower on a test of analytic thinking were more likely to believe fake news headlines.
The participants were presented with 12 fake and 12 real news headlines in random order, and asked to rate the degree to which they believed the headlines described something that actually happened. The fake news included both pro-Republican and pro-Democratic content. For example, one fake news headline read: “Mike Pence: Gay Conversion Therapy Saved My Marriage.”
“Our study examines two related styles of thought: actively open-minded and analytic thinking,” Bronstein told PsyPost.
“Actively open-minded thinking involves the search for alternative explanations and the use of evidence to revise beliefs. Analytic thinking involves the disposition to initiate deliberate thought processes in order to reflect on intuitions and gut feelings.”
“Previous research has shown that individuals who engage in less analytic thinking may be more likely to believe fake news. Our study extends this previous work in two ways. First, it shows that individuals who engage in less actively open-minded thinking may also be more likely to believe fake news,” Bronstein explained.
“Second, it suggests that reduced engagement in actively open-minded and analytic thinking might explain belief in fake news among individuals who endorse delusion-like ideas, dogmatic individuals, and religious fundamentalists. These results suggest that it might be possible to reduce belief in fake news using interventions that may increase analytic or actively open-minded thinking.”
All scientific research includes some limitations, and the current study is no exception. The researchers used a cross-sectional research design, preventing them from drawing conclusions about the direction of causality.
“One major caveat is that our study was not set up to determine whether less analytic or actively open-minded thinking causes increased belief in fake news. Future research will have to examine whether the relationships observed in our study are causal,” Bronstein said.
“Another caveat is that the relationship between different styles of thinking and belief in fake news was not so large (see below).”
“For example, although the most delusion-prone people rated fake news ‘very accurate’ twice as often as the least delusion-prone people in our samples, a significant percentage of highly delusion-prone individuals still considered fake news to be ‘not at all accurate.’ In short, even if less analytic/actively open-minded thinking does cause increased belief in fake news, people who engage in less actively open-minded or analytic thinking are not doomed to believe fake news,” Bronstein said.
“An important remaining question is why belief in fake news is associated with less analytic thinking. One possible explanation: belief in fake news and less engagement in analytic thinking may both be associated with less ability to detect conflicts during reasoning (e.g., between multiple intuitive ideas). We hope to examine this and other questions in future work.”
But what is the best way to reduce the impact of fake news?
“Sometimes people have asked whether our study means that efforts to reduce belief in fake news should include interventions targeting particular groups (e.g., delusion-prone or dogmatic individuals),” Bronstein said.
“In addition to the potential ethical issues with this approach, our study indicates that this approach may be inefficient: our research suggests that thinking in a less open-minded or analytic manner might increase the perceived accuracy of fake news across multiple population groups.”
For example, a previous study found that belief in fake news had more to do with lazy thinking than partisan or ideological bias.
“Accordingly, encouraging open-minded and reflective thinking in individuals who tend not to think in this way might be a more efficient and effective way of reducing belief in fake news in the general population,” Bronstein explained.
“However, it is worth keeping in mind that our research demonstrates a correlation between reduced open-minded/reflective thinking and belief in fake news (and not necessarily a causal relationship). Further research clarifying whether this relationship may be causal would be warranted before implementing any kind of targeted intervention.”
The study, “Belief in Fake News is Associated with Delusionality, Dogmatism, Religious Fundamentalism, and Reduced Analytic Thinking“, was authored by Michael V Bronstein, Gordon Pennycook, Adam Bear, David G.Rand, and Tyrone D.Cannon.