Insightfulness might play a critical role in the ability to assess the accuracy of information, according to new research published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning. The study found that people with greater insight-based problem solving skills were less likely to fall for fake news.
With rise of the internet and social media, susceptibility to misinformation has become of increasing concern. The authors of the new research sought to better understand the cognitive mechanisms associated with believing in misinformation. They were particularly interested in the role of insight-based problem solving.
“I’m a neuroscientist and study the neural correlates of creativity and idea generation, specifically how we generate ideas accompanied by ‘Aha! moments’ i.e., insights,” said study author Carola Salvi, a professor at the John Cabot University of Rome and an associate faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. “In this study, we investigated the relationship between insightfulness and aspects of social reasoning, such as believing in fake news, overclaiming, and bullshit.”
The study included 61 right-handed, native American English speakers, who were 25.5 years old on average.
The researchers used Compound Remote Associate problems to assess insightfulness. To solve the problems, participants needed to connect three seemingly unrelated words in order to find a shared theme. This type of problem forces individuals to think creatively and openly while relying on insight. For example, the participants might see the words “crab,” “pine,” and “sauce.” The solution to the problem is “apple.”
“Tackling complicated problems requires continuous reframing and changing the initial representation of a problem to see it in a new light (i.e., when we have an insight). Solving a problem, specifically via insight, entails generating novel and original ideas by exploring unusual reasoning paths, a skill that is associated with the ability to filter out irrelevant distractions which might bring advantages when reasoning about information coming from an overcrowded environment like the internet.”
“We hypothesized that such mental exercise — that includes questioning the status quo, considering alternative information as well as filtering out distractions — impacts other information processing skills such as assessing news veracity.”
The participants were presented with 20 news items (consisting of a headline, a thumbnail image, and a preview text) and were asked if they were familiar with the article, how accurate they believed the article was, and if they would share the article on social media. Half of the news items were fake. In addition, the researchers administered a test of the propensity to believe pseudo-profound bullshit. The participants were shown randomly-generated meaningless statements such as “Infinity is a reflection of reality” and asked to rate their profundity.
The researchers found a positive relation between insightfulness and discernment. Those who scored higher on the measure of insightfulness tended to be better able to identify fake news and differentiate meaningful statements from pseudo-profound bullshit. Importantly, the findings held even after accounting for cognitive reflectiveness, meaning the tendency to think critically about a problem rather than “going with your gut.”
“This is the first one in a series of studies where we look at parallelisms between cognitive and social rigidity. We know that problem-solving is a form of cognitive flexibility and expresses an overall tendency of questioning the status quo and considering alternative information when reasoning. This shape of thinking is expressed not just when we solve problems but also when we assess information on the internet for example.”
“The relationship between being a good problem solver and detecting fake news we found may also be explained by the willingness to invest time and effort in going beyond the default information. Problem-solving capacity may engender a greater tendency to question the information in news by investigating its accuracy further or by considering alternative and non-obvious explanations.”
Greater insightfulness was also associated with reduced overclaiming. In other words, those who scored higher on the Compound Remote Associate problems were less likely to claim to be familiar with people, events, and topics that had been made-up by the researchers.
“We are aware that this tendency might extend beyond news assessment, and that we might have tapped into a specific outcome of this effect that might be broader than what we are measuring in this study. While more evidence needs to be collected to shed light on this effect, our result replicates our former study on problem-solving and COVID-19 fake news (Salvi et al., 2021) further exploring the specific role of insightfulness in reasoning when assessing news veracity.”
The study, “Insight problem solving ability predicts reduced susceptibility to fake news, bullshit, and overclaiming“, was authored by Carola Salvi, Nathaniel Barr, Joseph E. Dunsmoor, and Jordan Grafman.