The Psychology Behind Fake News
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Organizations Social Impact Mar 6, 2017

The Psy­chol­o­gy Behind Fake News

Cog­ni­tive bias­es help explain our polar­ized media climate.

Belief in fake news is about tribalism as much as truth.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on insights from

Adam Waytz

It’s hard to ven­ture online these days — or switch on any cable net­work — with­out com­ing across a heat­ed dis­cus­sion over fake news.” Basic facts and fig­ures, rang­ing from crowd sizes to poll num­bers to whether or not it rained, now appear to be under nego­ti­a­tion. For many media con­sumers, it can feel as if we are liv­ing through an entire­ly new dystopi­an era, with each news cycle or press con­fer­ence send­ing us fur­ther down the rab­bit hole.

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But although the term fake news” reflects our trou­bled polit­i­cal moment, the phe­nom­e­non is noth­ing new, and nei­ther is the psy­chol­o­gy that explains its persistence. 

There’s a ten­den­cy for peo­ple to say, Well, giv­en the social media chan­nels we have now, these things can spread more quick­ly and have a greater effect than ever before,” says Adam Waytz, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School. There’s actu­al­ly more to it than that. Many of us remem­ber when the most promi­nent news out­lets in the world were report­ing that Iraq might have weapons of mass destruc­tion. That was before Face­book and Twitter.” 

To under­stand how peo­ple in the same coun­try, or same fam­i­ly, can have such vast­ly dif­fer­ing takes on real­i­ty, Waytz sug­gests we should focus not on the role of social media, but on the role of social psy­chol­o­gy — in par­tic­u­lar, the cog­ni­tive bias that stems from our trib­al men­tal­i­ties. For Waytz, before we can learn to address our divi­sive­ness, it is impor­tant to under­stand its roots. 

There’s an assump­tion that fake news exac­er­bates polar­iza­tion,” Waytz says. But it might be the case that polar­iza­tion exac­er­bates fake news.” 

The Many Fla­vors of Truth

To help explain our endur­ing sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to fake news, Waytz points to two well-known psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cepts. The first is moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing,” the idea that we are moti­vat­ed to believe what­ev­er con­firms our opinions. 

If you’re moti­vat­ed to believe neg­a­tive things about Hillary Clin­ton, you’re more like­ly to trust out­ra­geous sto­ries about her that might not be true,” says Waytz. Over time, moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing can lead to a false social consensus.” 

The sec­ond con­cept is naïve real­ism,” our ten­den­cy to believe that our per­cep­tion of real­i­ty is the only accu­rate view, and that peo­ple who dis­agree with us are nec­es­sar­i­ly unin­formed, irra­tional, or biased. Naïve real­ism helps explain the chasm in our polit­i­cal dis­course: instead of dis­agree­ing with our oppo­nents, we dis­cred­it them. It is also why some are quick to label any report that chal­lenges their world­view as fake. 

It hap­pens across the polit­i­cal spec­trum,” Waytz says, point­ing to the false rumor — cir­cu­lat­ed by lib­er­als — that Pres­i­dent Trump changed the Bill of Rights to read cit­i­zens” instead of per­sons.” We’re all quick to believe what we’re moti­vat­ed to believe, and we call too many things fake news’ sim­ply because it doesn’t sup­port our own view of reality.” 

Much of our sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to fake news has to do with how our brains are wired. We like to think our polit­i­cal con­vic­tions cor­re­spond to a high­er truth, but in fact they might be less robust and more mal­leable than we realize. 

To some extent, says Waytz, our polit­i­cal beliefs are not so dif­fer­ent from our pref­er­ences about music or food. 

There’s an assump­tion that fake news exac­er­bates polar­iza­tion. But it might be the case that polar­iza­tion exac­er­bates fake news.” 

In one unpub­lished study, Waytz and his fel­low researchers pre­sent­ed par­tic­i­pants with a num­ber of state­ments. These includ­ed fac­tu­al state­ments that could be proven or dis­proven (such as the very first waf­fle cone was invent­ed in Chica­go, Illi­nois”), pref­er­ence state­ments that peo­ple could assess sub­jec­tive­ly (such as any ice cream fla­vor tastes bet­ter when served in a crunchy waf­fle cone”), and moral – polit­i­cal belief state­ments that peo­ple could assess in terms of right or wrong (such as it is uneth­i­cal for busi­ness­es to pro­mote sug­ary prod­ucts to children”). 

In one study, a group of par­tic­i­pants was direct­ly asked to read and rate state­ments as resem­bling a fact, a pref­er­ence, or a moral belief. In a sec­ond study, a group of par­tic­i­pants had their brains scanned using fMRI while read­ing each state­ment and eval­u­at­ing how much they agreed or dis­agreed with it. After the scan, they answered ques­tions as in the first study about whether each state­ment resem­bled a fact, a pref­er­ence, or a moral belief. 

Waytz and his col­leagues found that, in both groups of par­tic­i­pants, peo­ple processed the moral – polit­i­cal beliefs more like pref­er­ences than like facts. Not only did par­tic­i­pants direct­ly rate moral – polit­i­cal beliefs as pref­er­ence-like,” but, says Waytz, when they read moral – polit­i­cal state­ments while hav­ing their brains scanned, the scans showed a pat­tern of activ­i­ty that’s com­pa­ra­ble to preferences.” 

Real­i­ty by Social Consensus

Although it may seem dis­con­cert­ing that our brains treat polit­i­cal beliefs like ice cream fla­vors, it also sug­gests that cer­tain beliefs — like cer­tain pref­er­ences — are sus­cep­ti­ble to change. We’ve all had the expe­ri­ence where at first we didn’t like a band but lat­er we become a fan,” Waytz says, and our taste for cer­tain foods cer­tain­ly evolves through­out the course of our lives.” 

This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true for beliefs for which pub­lic con­sen­sus is mixed. A belief like child labor is accept­able,” against which con­sen­sus is high, is processed much like a fact. But beliefs that are more con­tro­ver­sial, such as dog rac­ing is unac­cept­able,” are more sus­cep­ti­ble to per­sua­sion and atti­tude change and are over­whelm­ing­ly a prod­uct of the social con­sen­sus with­in a spe­cif­ic community. 

This is why fake news” is not just about social media or our ten­den­cy to skim the news — though yes, sites like Twit­ter and Face­book give mis­in­for­ma­tion the chan­nels to spread at a pace we have nev­er seen before, and rough­ly six in ten Amer­i­cans only read head­lines. What­ev­er the source of the news might be, the com­bined effects of moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing, naïve real­ism, and social con­sen­sus or trib­al­ism pre­vent peo­ple from reach­ing objec­tive conclusions. 

Accord­ing to Waytz, it’s also why chal­leng­ing false­hoods online might be a fool’s errand. 

Sat­is­fy­ing though it might be for peo­ple to cor­rect the inac­cu­ra­cies or out­right lies post­ed or tweet­ed by polit­i­cal oppo­nents — the Bowl­ing Green Mas­sacre” offered one such gal­va­niz­ing moment for lib­er­als — defer­ring to the offi­cial record does not change the under­ly­ing social dynam­ic at play. 

One of the things we’re learn­ing,” Waytz says, is that fact-based argu­ments don’t always work.” Take, for instance, a 2014 study by Bren­dan Nyhan, a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at Dart­mouth. Nyhan’s study found that even pre­sent­ing par­ents with hard sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that vac­cines do not cause autism did noth­ing to per­suade those par­ents who had pre­vi­ous­ly held that belief. 

A Pos­si­ble Solution

So, how do we over­come ide­o­log­i­cal bias­es and coun­ter­act the polar­iza­tion that fuels fake news?” Waytz says that social psy­chol­o­gy also points to a way forward. 

Encour­ag­ing­ly, there is evi­dence that when you alert peo­ple to their bias­es, they tend to suc­cumb to them less. A study involv­ing Israelis and Pales­tini­ans — two groups that are famous­ly entrenched in naïve real­ism — demon­strat­ed that when the con­cept of naïve real­ism was explained to them, the groups were less hos­tile towards each oth­er. When they were told, Hey, this bias exists,’ even the most hawk­ish among them were more con­cil­ia­to­ry,” Waytz says. 

Oth­er stud­ies have shown that peo­ple can over­come naïve real­ism by legit­imiz­ing one of their opponent’s legit­i­mate (or semi-legit­i­mate) points. 

If a Demo­c­rat and a Repub­li­can get togeth­er, and you have each of them offer a sin­gle argu­ment from their opponent’s side, it makes them more open to the idea that their real­i­ty is not the only one,” Waytz says. Inter­est­ing­ly, stud­ies have shown that when peo­ple are giv­en a finan­cial incen­tive to reflect on views opposed to their own, they are even less biased in the judge­ments they make about the oth­er side. 

Waytz also points out that this lev­el of polit­i­cal dis­cord may not last for­ev­er, at least when it comes to issues impact­ing people’s dai­ly lives. That’s because we are most sus­cep­ti­ble to many cog­ni­tive bias­es when we process infor­ma­tion only shal­low­ly. We know that peo­ple process infor­ma­tion more deeply when there’s poten­tial for them to lose some­thing,” he says. 

But bridg­ing the gap between two oppos­ing views of real­i­ty might require deep­er engage­ment with a more diverse set of data and news sources beyond what Twit­ter and Face­book can offer. 

The biggest dan­ger isn’t actu­al­ly fake news — it’s trib­al­ism,” Waytz says. Depo­lar­iza­tion only occurs when some­one has the courage to speak out against their tribe.” 

Featured Faculty

Adam Waytz

Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.

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