If humans have extraordinary reasoning abilities, why do so many of us fall for fake news? As the mid-term elections near, and our Facebook feeds load up with dubious posts, it's an unusually urgent question.
One school of thought suggests our analytical skills can actually work against us, since we use them to convince ourselves of the correctness of our prejudices. While there is evidence of that distressing phenomenon, new research suggests the answer may be simpler—and perhaps even fixable.
It links susceptibility to misinformation with intellectual laziness.
"The evidence indicates that people fall for fake news because they fail to think," report psychologists Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina and David Rand of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Individuals who are more willing to think analytically ... are less likely to think that fake news is accurate."
In the journal Cognition, the researchers describe three studies featuring a total of 3,446 people. The main study, conducted in the summer of 2017, featured 2,644 participants recruited online, split nearly evenly between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters.
Participants were presented with 12 fake and 12 real news headlines, all presented in the format of a social media post. The fake items were split evenly between ones that would appeal to Trump supporters and Trump opponents.
For each headline, participants noted whether they felt the story was very accurate, somewhat accurate, not very accurate, or not at all accurate. They also indicated whether they would consider sharing the story online.
In addition, all participants completed the Cognitive Reflection Test, in which they attempt to solve seven problems. Each has an obvious but wrong intuitive answer; correct responses therefore indicate a person utilizes analytical thinking.
One example: "If you're running a race and you pass the person who is in second place, what place are you in?" The intuitive answer is "first"; the correct answer is "second."
"Regardless of partisanship of the participant or the headline, more analytical individuals were able to differentiate between real and fake news," the researchers report. Importantly, participants were actually better able to detect false stories when they applied to their own candidate or party, which undercuts the idea that we convince ourselves of the accuracy when the story is something we would like to believe.
"Susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than it is by partisan bias per se," the researchers conclude. "Critically, this was not driven by a general skepticism towards the news media. More analytic individuals were, if anything, more likely to think that legitimate news was accurate."
So how do they explain the studies that show evidence of "motivated reasoning?" Pennycook and Rand suspect that phenomenon may be more pronounced when we are asked to given an opinion on a complicated issue such as climate change. Since we don't have the knowledge or intellectual capacity to really understand it, we find reasons to fall in line with our fellow partisans.
Fortunately, it's fairly easy to determine the plausibility of simple headlines. This research suggests that, if we task ourselves with doing so, we can flush out the fakes—even when they confirm our own beliefs.
"Analytic thinking plays an important role in people's self-inoculation against political disinformation," Pennycook and Rand conclude. "This suggests that interventions that are directed at making the public more thoughtful consumers of news may have promise."
"Ironically," they add, "the invention of the Internet and social media—which resulted from a great deal of analytic thinking—may now be exacerbating our tendency to rely on intuition." Resisting that temptation may be essential to saving our democracy.