The belief of fake news

One of the more mystifying aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency may have been explained, by a team of economists and psychologists from Yale University in the US.

Throughout the latter period of his election campaign and during his incumbency, Mr Trump has enjoyed consistent support from the US evangelical community – a religious and socially conservative group who should, on the face of it, be repulsed by the president’s admissions of extra-marital affairs and lewd conduct.

In a paper posted on the university’s Social Science Research Network (SSRN), and still awaiting peer-review, researchers led by Michael Bronstein from Yale’s Department of Psychology present evidence to suggest that people prone to delusion, dogmatists and religious fundamentalists all share a propensity to believe fake news. 

The three, sometimes overlapping, communities are also more willing than the general public to accept absurd explanations for events, to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe in paranormal phenomena.

The researchers suggest that “individuals who endorse delusion-like ideas … as well as dogmatic individuals and religious fundamentalists” believe untrue things because they exhibit “reduced engagement” with two methods of thinking. 

Bronstein and colleagues define the first of these as “active open-minded thinking”, which involves the search for alternative explanations to explain phenomena and the use of evidence to revise conclusions. The second is “analytic thinking”, which, they write, “involves deliberate thought processes that consume memory resources”.

“Reduced engagement in these forms of thinking … fully explained increased belief in fake news among dogmatic individuals and religious fundamentalists,” the researchers conclude.

To make the findings, Bronstein’s team used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system to recruit two cohorts, each containing 500 volunteers.

Each volunteer was first shown 12 fake news stories, constructed to look like social media posts, and asked to assess whether they were accurate, dodgy, or a load of bull-pucky.

After that, the participants undertook a battery of psychological questionnaires, designed to measure dogmatism, depth of religious belief, and delusion. In the last category, they were asked also whether any delusion they experienced was regarded as convincing, and whether it caused distress.

In two final tests, volunteers undertook a range of “cognitive reflection” tasks (in which intuitively obvious possible answers to questions needed to be set aside in favour of reason-derived alternatives) and were assessed for “postdiction” habits – the tendency to revise a prediction once the evidence is in, without acknowledging the fact.

After analysis, the researchers found that people who whose worldview involves delusions were more likely than average to believe fake news. The same conclusion was reached regarding “dogmatic individuals and religious fundamentalists”.

“The vulnerability of these individuals to belief in fake news was fully explained by their tendency to engage in less analytic and actively open-minded thinking,” Bronstein and colleagues concluded.

The team strongly recommended further investigations into “potential interventions” to encourage analytic and active thinking, thereby reducing the likelihood of susceptible individuals falling for fake news. Such an approach may bring important social benefits, the researchers noted, among them the reduced likelihood of false information inciting violence (or, perhaps, emboldening presidents).

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