As humans, we can’t help but occasionally believe in things that aren’t true. At times, doing so is relatively harmless: Believing in Santa Claus, for example, isn’t that damaging. But other times, false beliefs — like thinking that climate change is a Chinese hoax — can be harmful to society as a whole. New research from Yale University shows that some people are more susceptible to adopting those false beliefs than others.
Michael Bronstein, a Yale psychology graduate student, is the first author of the new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, in which he and his colleagues identify the characteristics that lead a person to believe in fake news. Their analysis pinpointed two groups of people that display certain patterns of thinking that could be dangerous, given the wrong information. Delusion-prone individuals, for one, have an increased belief in fake news over real news, as do two other types of people.
“In our study we found that correlation between greater belief in fake news and greater dogmatism, as well as religious fundamentalism, could be fully statistically explained by the less analytic cognitive style of these individuals,” Bronstein tells Inverse. “This statistical result is consistent with the idea that less engagement in analytic thinking could potentially cause greater belief in fake news in these individuals.”
Religious fundamentalists and dogmatic individuals, who are characterized by their less analytical cognitive style, might “engage less often in effortful, hypothetical thought and might therefore more often reason according to their intuitions,” he says. These people, the team theorizes, aren’t predisposed to engage with delusions and fake news, but their cognitive style might leave them “specifically prone” to endorsing fake news. An analytical person, in contrast, puts more effort into their thoughts as they override default responses driven by intuition.
The team tested their theory by giving two sets of participants — one group of 502 individuals and another of 446 — a news evaluation task. The participants looked at 12 fake and 12 real news headlines in random order and were asked to rate the accuracy of each headline based on the degree to which they thought the headline described real news.
Meanwhile, the participants also took surveys to evaluate their cognitive style, their level of religious fundamentalism, and how delusional and dogmatic they are. The team defines a dogmatic person as one who has a tremendous amount of confidence in what they believe and likely will not revise that belief, even in the face of countering evidence. “Don Quixote comes to mind as an example of a dogmatic individual,” says Bronstein.
The team’s analysis of the data supported their theory that people with less analytical cognitive styles are more vulnerable to false beliefs and may also be more delusion-prone, consistent with previous research. Furthermore, the data revealed that people who are more dogmatic and participate in religious fundamentalism are less adept at “media truth discernment” — in other words, more likely to believe in fake news.
Interestingly, though less analytical people were more likely to believe in fake news headlines, they were “no more likely to believe true news headlines,” the team writes.
Fake news, for its part, has fatigued the nation and been weaponized for politics. An April poll determined that, out of 803 respondents, 77 percent said they believe that mainstream media outlets purposefully report fake news. But fake news, despite what its name suggests, can mean different things to different people. In that poll, just 25 percent narrowly defined it as the spread of factually incorrect information. The rest defined fake news as more of a bias — a conscious choice to only show one side of a situation.
“By examining factors that have been associated with multiple different kinds of false beliefs, we might better understand why people endorse false beliefs and why they often persist in these beliefs despite evidence against them,” Bronstein says.
Fortunately, just because a person is prone to believing in fake news doesn’t mean they’re stuck in their ways forever, says Bronstein. He reasons that being delusion-prone is the result of the interaction between genes and the environment in which a person lives. There’s not much a person can do about their genetics, but their environment — the way they consciously and subconsciously interact with the world around them — can be modulated by therapies that encourage a more analytic cognitive style.
Bronstein understands that one of the challenges of consuming news by social media is that it can be overwhelming. The sheer deluge of information means it’s difficult to look at all of that in a open-minded or analytical way. To keep from falling for fake news, Bronstein recommends consuming news from “a source with a reputation for consistently and carefully vetting its stories, rather than just reading and accepting what gets shared via social media.”
“Importantly, you can keep others from falling for fake news,” Bronstein says. “Research suggests that merely being exposed to fake news can increase your belief in it. So, people may be able to help others avoid falling for fake news by thinking analytically about the news they share on social media, which may help them avoid inadvertently sharing fake news.”