A new study in Personality and Individual Differences sheds light on who is vulnerable to fake news and what can be done to help people falling for it. The findings indicate that those with more schizotypal, paranoid, and histrionic personality traits tend to have trouble detecting fake news.
In addition, these individuals suffered more anxiety and engaged in more cognitive biases. Study authors Alex Escola-Gascon and colleagues recommend combating the Barnum Effect and teaching critical thinking skills to buffer against vulnerability to fake news effectively.
Challenges in critical thinking leading to conspiratorial or pseudoscientific beliefs are not new. However, the access one has to tall tales marketed as fact is unprecedented and has far-reaching consequences. Public health organizations and governments worldwide face difficulties because individuals cannot determine what information is reliable or accurate. Escola-Gascon and colleagues recognized the necessity of identifying who may be vulnerable to fake news and using the findings to recommend therapeutic interventions.
The study recruited 1,452 participants over 21 years of age, with just under half of the group identifying as female (49%). Participants were also asked the number of daily hours they spent on the internet. In addition, the participants had no clinical diagnoses of psychiatric conditions.
Subjects were then assessed using several tests, including the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, Positive and Negative Affect Scale, and Multivariable Multiaxial Suggestibility Inventory. These served to identify personality traits that may identify those vulnerable to fake news and those who were not.
In order to determine who was most vulnerable to fake news, participants took the COVID-19 fake news test. This test presented participants with 18 statements; six were false, six were true, and the final six did not have enough information to prove them true or false.
Each statement could be responded to with a “true,” “false,” or “uncertain” response. Those who were successful on this test, getting nine or more correct, were considered part of the group not vulnerable to fake news; the remaining participants were grouped together for statistical analysis of their responses on the personality inventories.
The findings of this endeavor were complex but meaningful. Escola-Gascon and colleagues state, “Results supported the conclusion that failure to correctly detect fake news is related to increased psychopathological risks in Trait Anxiety, State Anxiety, Negative Effect, Histrionism, Schizotypy, Paranoia, Narcissism, Simulations (Barnum Effect), Suggestibility and Search for Emotions.” In simpler terms, several interconnected personality traits result in greater vulnerability to fake news.
From this finding, the research team recommended interventions they feel may work individually to help identify fake news and the subsequent negative psychological consequences.
The first is to teach individuals to avoid the Barnum Effect, which refers to the phenomenon where individuals believe that a generic statement or description applies specifically to them, even though it could apply to many people. This is often seen in the context of phony personality tests and psychic readings. The Barnum Effect can be used to manipulate public health behaviors and political opinions.
The second recommendation is to teach people how to think critically alongside their intuition. Believers in fake news or pseudoscience are often guided by intuition. Intuitive thinking cannot be ignored or belittled in teaching critical analysis. The research team recommends that critical thinking be marketed and taught as a partner to intuition.
There are some acknowledged limitations to the study. The decision to group those vulnerable to fake news based on a score below 9 on the COVID-19 fake news test was not based on empirical research, it may be that scores higher or lower than 9 represent the most vulnerable. Also, the sample consisted of only Spanish individuals; cultural confounding variables may challenge the study’s generalizability.
The research team does not believe these limitations diminish the relevance of their study. Escola-Gascon and colleagues conclude, “The results of this research are not experimental, but they contribute to the generation of new hypotheses and offer practical recommendations for the psychiatric and/or psychological clinic.”
The study, “Who falls for fake news? Psychological and clinical profiling evidence of fake news consumers“, was authored by Alex Escola-Gascon, Neil Dagnall, Andrew Denovan, Kenneth Drinkwater, and Miriam Diez-Bosch.