New findings about why some people fall for fake news and pseudo-profound bullshit

People who overclaim their level of knowledge and are impressed by pseudo-profound bullshit are also more likely to believe fake news, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality.

“I’ve long had an interest in the pitfalls (and strengths) of human reasoning and had published some work on why people fall for bullshit,” explained study author Gordon Pennycook (@GordPennycook), an assistant professor at the University of Regina.

“During the 2016 election, fake news emerged as this huge story and there were many people scrambling for answers. David Rand and I decided that this was something that would be really interesting (and important) to investigate.”

Pseudo-profound bullshit describes statements that can appear to be deep but have no real meaning, such as the sentences “We are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself” and “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

In three studies of 1,606 participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the researchers found that people who viewed bullshit statements to be profound were more likely to view fake news headlines as accurate.

The participants judged the accuracy of a variety of fake and real news headlines. Participants who had a tendency to claim to be familiar with things that didn’t actually exist or that couldn’t be known were also more likely to view fake news as accurate.

Those who scored higher on a measure of analytic thinking, on the other hand, tended to be less susceptible to believing fake news headlines.

“Reasoning errors are (often) not random. There are systematic differences between people in terms of how they approach content on social media,” Pennycook told PsyPost.

“Most broadly, there appears to be a general tendency for people engage in what we call ‘reflexive open-mindedness’ – they are overly willing to accept or believe a wide variety of claims without thinking analytically about them. This makes them prone to falling for fake news, pseudo-profound bullshit, and presumably a large class of other types of deceptive or simply false claims.”

The researchers also found that bullshit receptivity was positively associated with the willingness to share both fake news and real news on social media.

The link between perceptions of headline accuracy and willingness to share the news was relatively weak, suggesting that “the decision to share a news article – whether it is fake or real – is driven by concerns about reputation or virtue signaling” more than perceived accuracy.

“We have only looked at a thin slice of the larger bullshit pie (apologies for the gross imagery),” Pennycook added. “There are a lot of deceptive and false types of claims that people have to contend with (particularly in the internet age), and I would consider this a preliminary look into the issue.”

The study, “Who falls for fake news? The roles of bullshit receptivity, overclaiming, familiarity, and analytic thinking“, was authored by Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand.