You're Vulnerable, but I'm Immune

Should we be worried about the impact of rumors and fake news on others?

Posted Jan 31, 2018

Do you worry about rumors? Are you concerned about fake news? False information might change other people. Of course, you’re immune, aren’t you?

Have you noticed how some people seem to be easily influenced; falling for whatever biased information is presented to them? Aren’t you concerned about how rumors change what your friends believe? Those rumors may change the way people feel about you and the way people treat you.

Or maybe you’re worried about the impact of fake news? Everyone seems to be concerned about fake news these days. Information circulates on social media. Misinformation is promoted on various websites and sometimes in supposedly fair and balanced news sources.

Simply put, we often worry that other people are easily influenced and changed by negative information. But we also believe that we would never fall for fake news. I’m convinced that I don’t change how I interact with others based on fake news and rumors. This makes for an interesting and important distinction: We believe other people are easily swayed but think we are immune from the powers of persuasion. Our belief in our immunity is a form of egocentric bias—a bias to believe we are better than others. This difference in belief about who is affected by persuasion is a well-known effect, often called the ‘third-person effect’ (defined by Davidson in 1983).

This difference between others being vulnerable but the self being immune could occur for a number of reasons. We may overemphasize how much others change in response to receiving negative information. Conversely, we may underestimate how much we change—falsely believing that we’re immune. The general assumption has often been that people incorrectly overestimate how much others are influenced. That we worry too much about the impact of misinformation and rumors.

To be honest, I looked at this set of research with hope. I was hoping that maybe the impact of rumors and fake news was less than I and others suspected. Maybe we are right about ourselves—that we are not particularly influenced by false information. This would mean that our concerns for others is actually overblown. If we aren’t impacted, then probably they aren’t either. Maybe I don’t need to worry so much about rumors and fake news.

In an experimental investigation, Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton (2004) investigated this egocentric bias in a series of classroom studies. First, they measured respondents’ attitudes on some political issues and their beliefs about the attitudes of their fellow students. Then, after a delay of two weeks, the students were presented with persuasive information. Afterwards, they rated their current views and their beliefs about their fellow students’ beliefs. They also rated what they thought they used to be like and what they thought their classmates used to be like. Sounds complex, but the findings are pretty straightforward. People changed. The persuasive message had an effect. But each person believed they hadn’t changed. This is a classic finding. When we change, we often don’t recognize that we’ve done so (Ross, 1989). Oddly, the same people believed that others had changed, had been persuaded by the message.

The misimpression is primarily an egocentric bias. We underestimate how much we are influenced. But we also seem to be fairly correct that other people are influenced. We know that others are vulnerable. Our mistake is believing we are immune. We falsely believe we haven’t changed even after we’ve been persuaded.

Douglas and Sutton used political attitudes and biased information to persuade people to change from the standard views within their student population. Thus, they presented information that argued against gun control and against humans as the cause of climate change. They successfully changed students’ views, but the students believed they hadn’t changed. Interestingly, the students did correctly believe that the message was effective in changing the views of their peers.

This strikes me as odd and important. We correctly assess that information may change others – even correctly realizing that misinformation will change others’ attitudes. We falsely believe, however, that we’re safe; that misinformation will have little effect on us.

Obviously, this matters. It matters politically. People are persuaded by new information. Of course, this is potentially positive if people are exposed to reliable information and become persuaded to change their positions. The troubling part? This is a good reason to be concerned when people, including ourselves, are exposed to misinformation. The really scary part is that we may underestimate how much we’ve been influenced by the fake news and misinformation to which we’ve been exposed.

I also think this matter interpersonally. We are constantly learning new information about friends and coworkers. Some of that information is misleading information delivered by rumor. Of course, we know rumors are bad and we don’t want other people falsely misled by erroneous rumors. But we probably think we’re fine. That we wouldn’t change our views of friends based on a single bad rumor. We’re wrong. All of us are susceptible to misinformation – whether it is misinformation delivered in the media or via a rumor.

You are right to be concerned about the impact of rumors and false information on other people, on your friends, and on your family. A steady diet of false news, misinformation, and rumors will change them. But you should also be careful about your own sources of information. You aren’t immune. I’m not immune either. Although we think we’re safe and we believe that false information doesn’t affect us, we are just as susceptible as everyone else. Be careful about the news you consume.

References

Davidson, W. P. (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 1-15.

Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2004). Right about others, wrong about ourselves? Actual and perceived self-other differences in resistance to persuasion. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 585-603.

Ross, M. (1989). Relation of implicit theories to the construction of personal histories. Psychological Review, 96, 341-357.

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