Even Alex Jones made it to Georgia

We don’t usually think of fake news and conspiracy theories as children’s problems, but new research suggests that childhood fantasy might pave the way for people to buy into false narratives in adulthood. Knowing this, the researchers tell Inverse, sheds light on the ways we can protect adults from falling prey to these narratives, especially as fake news becomes increasingly hard to avoid.

Fantasy realms and make-believe are thought to make kids feel less vulnerable by giving them a sense of control or order in a chaotic world. Believing in conspiracy theories and fake news later in life has largely the same effect: These ideas give a sense of order to a world in which things don’t often fit with how we think the world should be.

“It starts out very early in life when children first start to understand that not everything that’s being told to them is truthful,” Mark Whitmore, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University who presented his work at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association on Friday, explains to Inverse. Around the same time that children learn how to play in fantasy, they also are exposed to belief systems from their parents, learning to discern truth from lies between the ages of four and seven. The researchers’ concern is that playing at make-believe might muddy that process, which has consequences down the line.

Eve Whitmore, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist with Western Reserve Psychological Associates and Mark’s wife, explained in her talk that, over time, make-believe ideas can become a defense mechanism against a world that’s difficult to understand or grasp. Years later, adults may use “confirmation bias” to reject ideas that don’t fit their closely-held worldview, thereby protecting their belief systems against external challenges.

Fortunately, the team says there are three simple ways to make ourselves less susceptible to embracing attractive false beliefs about the world.

little girl covering her eyes
Fantasy can help lessen how scary the world feels when we're children, but researchers say it can make us more susceptible to fake news as adults.

Humor

Since confirmation bias is rooted to a significant degree in the fear or anxiety we feel when confronted with information that contradicts our beliefs, Mark Whitmore says that lessening these feelings can help decrease the pull of confirmation bias.

As any fan of jokes about death knows, humor can be a great way to decrease the impact of information we find distressing. And this same strategy could be helpful for news consumption.

“A really common response to news that potentially could be confusing, stressful, so on, is humor,” he says. “Humor is a great stress reliever, but it’s only temporary. It doesn’t really change the source of the stressor.”

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Sublimation

Sublimation, he says, is when a person takes “all that anxiety and emotion and you redirect it toward something that’s more constructive.” In other words, instead of simply cushioning yourself from the feelings caused by exposing yourself to news media you might not agree with, you can actually change what’s happening in the world. “Examples of that would be people going out and supporting an issue they feel is very important, maybe going on a protest march, or like in our case, it’s writing about it. Or run for office, for example.”

So instead of switching from one cable news channel to the other when something ugly comes on, it might help to actually get up and do something about it.

Exposure

Of course, since it’s hard to avoid news, it’s important that we choose our sources wisely. Intentionally exposing ourselves to ideas or perspectives with which we might disagree can help make us less likely to reject opposing viewpoints, Mark Whitmore says. Ultimately, by broadening the scope of one’s media diet to include more than just Fox News or Occupy Democrats, news consumers can become less entrenched in their own stances. Since news reader apps and social media can keep people stuck in their “directional search” for news that’s consistent with their viewpoints, Whitmore suggests that people manually choose a broader range of news sources. “That would be more of an ‘accuracy search’ strategy.”

But even the most well-intentioned news consumer could fall victim to confirmation bias when attempting to broaden their media diet. For this reason, Whitmore emphasizes the need for self-awareness and self-discipline when we choose where we get our news.

“The fact is, we’re all heavily influenced by confirmation bias,” he said. “The way out brains are set up, our brains want harmony, they want consistency of information.”