False memories, which are memories and beliefs of events that never happened, may be more likely to occur for false information that aligns with one’s political beliefs. In two studies, new research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology finds that pre-existing negative attitudes about feminism are associated with a greater likelihood of falsely remembering news stories that do not reflect well on feminism. Findings also suggest that negative feminism attitudes are associated with a greater likelihood of judging a positive news story about feminists as fake.
Pre-existing attitudes can shape how someone understands and remembers media messages. “Evidence suggests that when an individual has insufficient information to determine the source of a memory, they are likely to guess based on prior knowledge, using stereotypes and schemata to determine the most likely source. This results in a greater likelihood of stereotype- consistent false memories,” wrote study author Gillian Murphy and colleagues.
An example of this can be found in previous research conducted by Frenda and colleagues (2013) where conservative people were found to be more likely to falsely remember a fake scandal involving President Obama (compared to liberals), while liberal people were more likely to falsely remember a fake scandal involving President Bush (compared to conservatives).
For Study 1, the researchers recruited a sample of 1537 adults from student email lists and social media posts. Participants were measured for strength of feminism attitudes and presented with 8 different news stories (6 true and 2 fake). The 2 fake news stories depicted either 1) statistics of rape claims or 2) a riot at a feminist protest.
The researchers created two versions of these fake news stories: one with a feminism-aligned slant (e.g., fabricated rape claims are uncommon) and one without (e.g., fabricated rape claims are more common than previously thought). Each participant read one feminism-aligned and one feminism-misaligned fake news story. All participants were asked if they remembered the events depicted in all 8 news stories and if they believed any of the 8 stories were fake.
Results show that higher negative attitudes toward feminism were associated with a lower likelihood of falsely remembering the feminism-aligned story. Conversely, higher negative feminism attitudes were associated with a greater likelihood of falsely remembering the feminism-misaligned story.
Higher negative feminism attitudes were also associated with greater odds of identifying the feminism-aligned story as fake and decreased odds of identifying the feminism-misaligned story as fake.
Researchers conducted a second study to address three key limitations of the first by 1) creating less ambiguous feminism-related stories, 2) assessing general susceptibility to false memories, and 3) advertising the study as a COVID-19 memory study, as advertising Study 1 as a feminism-related study could have biased the participant pool.
Using the same recruitment methods as Study 1, researchers achieved a final sample of 786 adult participants.
Similar to Study 1, participants read 3 true news stories and 2 fake ones. Researchers created two versions of each fake news story: one with a group of feminists being fined for misusing funds (negative) or one with a group of feminists assisting vulnerable people during the COVID-19 pandemic (positive). Researchers also created versions of these stories with a group of refugees to test general susceptibility to non-feminism related information.
Participants again filled out the feminism attitudes scale used in Study 1 and similar dependent measures; however, the authors added filler questions related to COVID-19 to disguise the true purpose of the study.
Results were overall consistent with Study 1. Higher negative feminism attitudes were associated with a lower likelihood of falsely remembering the positive feminism story. On the other hand, higher negative feminism attitudes were associated with a greater likelihood of falsely remembering the negative feminism story. This pattern was not observed for the stories depicting refugees.
Higher negative feminism attitudes were also associated with a greater likelihood of reporting the positive feminism story to be fake and the negative feminism story as true. This pattern was once again not observed for the refugee stories.
Researchers acknowledge limitations of their measurement of recollection and suggest future research should explore richer methods of observing memory errors and changes.
Altogether, those with negative attitudes about feminism were less likely falsely remember a pro-feminist story and more likely to falsely remember an anti-feminist story, which provides support for the idea that we might be more susceptible to false memories that align with our worldviews.
The study, “Attitudes towards feminism predict susceptibility to feminism-related fake news“, was authored by Gillian Murphy, Emma Murray, and Doireann Gough.