Precisely two years after the election of President Donald Trump—a contest stained by deliberately inaccurate information that was shared and weaponized on social media—America has not yet come to grips with the issue of fake news. How it spreads is a central issue, but an even more basic question is who believes it, and why?
New research provides at least a partial answer, identifying three specific groups of people who are particularly susceptible to phony stories, and offering a likely reason why.
"Delusion-prone individuals, dogmatic individuals, and religious fundamentalists are most likely to believe fake news," writes a research team led by psychologist Michael Bronstein of Yale University. This credulity is at least partly due to the lower likelihood that such people will engage in "actively open-minded and analytic thinking."
The results complement those of another recent study that found the least analytical voters in 2016 were social conservatives, particularly Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for Trump. That switch could be partially explained by these voters' susceptibility to fake news.
The new study, published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, featured 948 adults living in the United States who were recruited online. They were presented with 12 actual and 12 fictitious news headlines, in a format typically seen on social media. The fake headlines were taken from false stories that circulated widely during the 2016 election, alongside claims that had been judged false by Snopes.com.
Both the real and fake headlines were balanced to equally favor Democrats and Republicans. Participants estimated the accuracy of each using a one-to-four scale.
They also completed tests designed to measure dogmatism, religious fundamentalism, delusional thoughts (questions included "Do you ever feel as if there is a conspiracy against you?"), and open-mindedness. For the latter, they indicated their level of agreement with statements such as: "A person should always consider new possibilities."
In addition, subjects took the Cognitive Reflection Test, featuring "problems that have intuitive-but-incorrect responses that must be overridden to arrive at the correct answer." The CRT measures an individual's tendency either to analyze problems, or to rely on intuitive thinking.
The results: "Delusion-like ideation, dogmatism, and religious fundamentalism were all positively correlated with belief in fake news," the researchers report. People who scored high on those traits tended to have lower scores on "media truth discernment"—the ability to recognize real news as real and fake news as fake.
Further analysis revealed a partial or, perhaps, full explanation for that finding: It turns out that the latter set of people were also less likely to engage in open-minded and analytical thinking—thereby avoiding a cognitive approach that "may broadly discourage implausible beliefs," the researchers note.
The results suggest that the best way to counter fake news may be interventions to encourage open-minded and analytical thinking. Designing and implementing such programs would be a huge challenge.
But given social media companies' ineffectiveness at countering misinformation, building a smarter citizenry may be our best hope.