New research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that intellectual humility is a trait that may protect against misinformation in the media or “fake news.” A series of studies found that people with greater intellectual humility were consistently more inclined to investigate fake claims about COVID-19.
There has been great concern over the massive amount of misinformation that has circulated since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This false information includes conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the virus and misleading claims that downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. The media, scholars, and world leaders alike have discussed the dangers of this misinformation, suggesting that such false claims can reduce adherence to protective behaviors and further the spread of the virus.
A research team led by Jonah Koetke proposed that when faced with questionable information, there are certain actions that people can take to evaluate whether the information is reliable or not, such as fact-checking a news article or seeking alternative sources of information. They call these actions investigative behaviors and propose that the tendency to engage in these behaviors depends on a person’s characteristics — and specifically, their intellectual humility.
“We were interested in this topic for two reasons. First, we were interested because misinformation about COVID-19 is such a pressing and dangerous issue. We thought it critical to research ways to mitigate the harmful effects of this misinformation. Second, from a theory perspective, we were interested in finding what predicts engaging in the sorts of behaviors that can protect people from misinformation,” said Koetke, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.
Intellectual humility refers to the ability to recognize one’s own intellectual shortcomings and to accept the possibility of being wrong. People with strong intellectual humility tend to be more motivated to seek knowledge and better able to distinguish the difference between a strong and a weak argument. Among three separate American samples, Koetke and colleagues explored whether individuals with greater intellectual humility would be more willing to scrutinize COVID-19 misinformation.
An initial study presented participants with two real news headlines related to COVID-19 and two fake news headlines related to COVID-19. Participants were asked how likely they would be to fact-check the headline, look into the article source, seek alternative opinions, or read the full article. The researchers found that people with greater intellectual humility were more likely to engage in these investigative behaviors in response to the fake news headlines — but not more likely to investigate the real news headlines. Koetke and colleagues say that this suggests that intellectual humility is only relevant when it comes to investigating questionable information that seems misaligned with reputable knowledge.
Two additional studies replicated these effects. Importantly, the third study looked at real behavior rather than self-reported intentions. Respondents were shown two fake news headlines downplaying the importance of wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the virus. For each headline, they were offered the opportunity to open a new tab and search for more information about the article. In line with the previous studies, respondents with greater humility were significantly more likely to investigate the fake news articles by opting to search for more information online.
Importantly, in all three studies, the researchers controlled for a series of variables that may affect a person’s interpretation of fake news — such as analytic thinking, education, and familiarity with the article — and the effects of intellectual humility remained significant.
“The take-away from our paper is that it is important to be humble in our own knowledge when encountering misinformation. In our studies, we found that those with higher levels of intellectual humility, or those willing to admit that what they think and believe may be fallible, were more motivated to engage in investigating misinformation and seeking out evidence and facts,” Koetke told PsyPost.
The researchers say that their findings suggest that while people who are high in intellectual humility are open to new perspectives, they will not unselectively endorse any view that they come across. “Rather,” the study authors note, “they want their beliefs to be based on solid evidence and therefore behave accordingly, investigating the validity of information so they can ultimately reject false claims. These findings thus suggest that intellectual humility may provide some of the motivation behind engaging in behaviors that fight against misinformation.”
One limitation to the current research was that the studies did not assess whether the use of investigative behaviors was actually helpful in evaluating misinformation, and the authors suggest that future studies should explore this. They acknowledge that it’s possible that looking into false claims could backfire by leading people to feel overly convinced about a claim after taking investigative actions to examine its source.
“The major caveat for our paper is that the findings were correlational. Future work should focus on manipulating intellectual humility to determine causation,” Koetke said.
The study, “Intellectual Humility Predicts Scrutiny of COVID-19 Misinformation”, was authored by Jonah Koetke, Karina Schumann, and Tenelle Porter.