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Attitudes and False Memories for Fake News

Attitudes influence whether we falsely remember seeing untrue news events.

Politically, 2019 was a tumultuous year for those of us living in the United Kingdom. The division and polarization over Brexit led to a national election, which led to campaigns full of information and misinformation that drew many comparisons to the propaganda featured in the Brexit referendum itself. After the election outcome, a friend indicated that he would have had no trouble with the result if it were not based on opinions based on so much fake news and misinformation.

Would he have felt the same way if “his side” had won the election? Many experiments on attitudes and information processing suggest that we are very selective in how we perceive, interpret, and remember information. A recent article suggests that this powerful effect extends to the ways in which we tap our memories for information about fake news.

22 September 2017; Wikimedia Commons; CC0 1.0
Source: 22 September 2017; Wikimedia Commons; CC0 1.0

This study occurred in the run-up to the 2018 referendum on abortion in Ireland (Murphy, Loftus, Grady, Levine, & Greene, 2019). The researchers recruited over 3,000 women and men through online sources as part of a study of the referendum and the two campaigns. Participants were asked about their attitudes on the issue and shown six news stories, including two fake events that were of particular interest to the researchers. For all of the news events, participants were asked to respond to a series of questions assessing whether they believed the event occurred and remembered the event happening (e.g., "I don’t remember this but I believe it happened").

The researchers examined the number of times that participants falsely remembered seeing one of the fake news events. At least one of the fake news events was misremembered as real by 48 percent of the participants. Crucially, this rate of false recognition was predicted by participants’ own attitudes. Participants were more likely to remember or believe the fabricated event if it was supportive of their own attitude position than if it was supportive of the opposing attitude. That is, “yes” supporters were more likely to falsely remember a fake event undermining the “no” campaign than were “no” supporters, and “no” supporters were more likely to falsely remember a fake event undermining the “yes” campaign than were the “yes” supporters.

Is it inevitable that we misremember fake news in a way that supports our own attitudes? The researchers found that this effect was lower in individuals who demonstrate higher cognitive ability, reinforcing other evidence about the importance of analytical thinking in rejecting nonevidential claims (Pennycook, Fugelsang, & Koehler, 2015). This evidence supports the theory that people are capable of identifying memory sources more accurately, but additional support and training may be needed to help counteract the powerful impact of our own attitudinal biases.

This work is a sobering counterpoint to my friend’s concerns about the impact of fake news on other people. The impact of fake news on others may be easy for us to spot, but its impact on ourselves is just as important. For us to succeed in working toward bridging gaps on important social issues, it is vital that people seek to critically interrogate the memories that both support and oppose their views. It is also imperative that researchers develop and share toolkits and techniques to make this difficult task easier.


Murphy, G., Loftus, E. F., Grady, R. H., Levine, L. J., & Greene, C. M. (2019). False Memories for Fake News During Ireland’s Abortion Referendum. Psychological Science, 30(10), 1449–1459.

Pennycook, G., Fugelsang, J. A., & Koehler, D. J. (2015). Everyday Consequences of Analytic Thinking. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(6), 425–432.