Dull Minds Are Gullible to Fake News

Cognitive ability drives our ability to recalibrate our views after reading a correction.
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Cognitive ability drives our ability to recalibrate our views after reading a correction.

What drives a person to cling to a piece of incorrect information, even after it has been definitively disproved? One obvious answer is tribalism. If a piece of information reflects badly on the other side—say, the "discovery" that Barack Obama was born in Kenya—we have an emotional incentive to keep believing it.

While that phenomenon is very real, new research from Belgium has come up with a simpler explanation. It points to a widespread phenomenon that leaves a person particularly vulnerable to misinformation—one that can be found among people of all races, nationalities, and political parties.

It's commonly known as stupidity.

The "lingering influence" of fake news "is dependent on an individual's level of cognitive ability," psychologists Jonas De Keersmaecker and Arne Roets of Ghent University write in the journal Intelligence.

They report people with greater cognitive skills can and do make corrections when new, better information supersedes a mistaken early report. Those whose reasoning, understanding, and problem-solving abilities are less advanced have trouble making that switch.

Their study featured 390 adults recruited online. Half of them read a description of a young woman named Nathalie, a married nurse who worked in a hospital. Then they shared their general impressions of her, estimating her level of such qualities as warmth, trustworthiness, and sincerity.

The other half read a lengthier version of the mini-biography. It stated that Nathalie was caught stealing drugs from the hospital, which she then sold in order to afford designer clothes. They then filled out the same scales.

Afterwards, they "saw an explicit message on their screen stating that the information regarding the stealing and dealing of drugs was not true." They then read an amended version of the aforementioned description, and again expressed their feelings toward the nurse.

All participants filled out two questionnaires designed to identify psychological traits that are identified with a reluctance to change one's mind. One measured right-wing authoritarianism, the other "need for closure," a.k.a. a lack of comfort with ambiguity.

Most importantly, they also took a 10-item vocabulary test that has been frequently used as "a proxy of cognitive ability or intelligence." In each round, they are presented with a word, and then asked which of five additional words is closest in meaning to the first.

The researchers report that "the false information effects never completely wore off in individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability." Even after getting the corrected information, these people still judged the nurse more harshly than those who received no information at all about her alleged criminal behavior.

In contrast, evaluations given by people with high levels of cognitive ability who read the correction were not significantly different from those given by people who were not exposed to the misinformation in the first place. These participants made "appropriate attitude adjustments," the researchers write.

Importantly, these differences persisted even after the researchers factored in authoritarian beliefs and dislike of uncertainty. That strongly suggests they were driven by cognitive ability—or the lack thereof.

So "alternative facts" can and do linger among a significant subset of the population. And as the researchers note, the misimpression they leave "cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this information is incorrect."

That should provide a strong incentive to news organizations to get it right the first time. Unfortunately, it also gives unscrupulous politicians license to lie.