Will Critical Thinking Save Us from Misinformation?

Why you should be deeply concerned about fake news and misinformation

Posted Apr 28, 2019

I worry about misinformation in the news and social media. We’re all exposed, constantly. Is there any way to protect ourselves from the pernicious influence of fake news and misinformation?

Last week I participated in a discussion about misinformation sponsored by Humanities Washington. The panel included experts from information science, political science, history, and me (a cognitive scientist). We’re all concerned about the influence of misinformation. We had a wide-ranging discussion about everything from social media to conspiracy theories. I felt some optimism during the discussion. But I have a lingering sense of pessimism about the fight against misinformation.

In our discussion, everyone valued the right to free speech. But everyone was also concerned about how much people are inundated with misinformation. Your social media feed undoubtedly contains links to news stories with false claims and memes portraying misinformation. If you search a topic, you are often only one or two clicks from conspiracy theories. Most social media companies have algorithms designed to keep you engaged. And those algorithms find that people respond to click-bait; links that seem more and more unusual. Thus, the quick and easy connections to extreme views and conspiracy theories.

I’m optimistic because people in various disciplines see and understand the problems of misinformation in social media and the news. People are actively tracking the problem. People are working on solutions. Hopefully some of these will be in place before our next election cycle. When we make important decisions, we want to rely on good information rather than misinformation.

But I also remain pessimistic. I’m pessimistic because everyone believes critical thinking skills will save us from misinformation. The assumption is that if people are critical consumers of news and social media, then they will be able to reject misinformation.

I’m not confident that critical thinking skills will save us from misinformation.

First, we aren’t always critical thinkers. Much of the time we go through the world without engaging in critical thought. I’m a trained critic of ideas – that’s what college professors do for a living. But when I scan through my social media feeds, I turn down my critical thinking. I’m looking at what my friends are doing. I see cute pictures of puppies and children. I’m also regularly exposed to news items and memes in my social media and news feeds. Even when we read the news, we aren’t also engaged in critical thinking. We are simply scanning through the news. We will likely remember some of the information we see. We’re especially likely to remember information that we see multiple times. We’re also likely to think that repeated information is true – even if it is false. I’ve written about this cognitive bias before – the illusory truth effect. So the first problem is that we aren’t thinking critically. Thinking critically involves a lot of cognitive effort, and we usually move through our lives without being critical of every piece of information we encounter.

But my second concern is that we have a set of cognitive biases that make it hard to be effective even when we try to think critically.

For example, have you ever tried to provide information to people who seem to believe misinformation? Maybe they seem to accept what you say. But eventually they revert back to their old view based on the misinformation. When you try to provide disconfirming information, that also gets them thinking about and rehearsing the misinformation. Attempts at correcting misinformation often lead people to rehearse the misinformation – making it even more memorable. The bad information stays in memory, your attempted correction is forgotten, and misinformation continues to influence them.

Of course, everyone can be a critical thinker sometimes. But here’s another challenge of trying to be a critical thinker: we frequently display the myside bias. We are more able to think critically about someone else’s argument than our own. This had been demonstrated for a wide variety of topics and with a diverse set of samples (e.g., Klaczynski, 1997). This argument about the myside bias has a long history – I seem to recall learning about not criticizing the mote in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the beam in your own. Interestingly, the ability to think critically is related to education and intelligence. More educated people are better at summoning critically thinking skills. But they aren’t any better at being critical of arguments in favor of their own position. Everybody displays the myside bias. We all are better at being critical of someone else’s ideas than our own (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2013). Actually, sometimes more education makes things worse. College educated people are often good at seeking information and engaging in some critical thinking (at least of the other side). But this means that if they get engaged, they can find misinformation consistent with the way they want the world to be and ignore or criticize other views. Thus, a college education makes conservative and liberals more convinced of their views on issues such as climate change.

And this is why I’m pessimistic about managing the influence of misinformation. Most people assume the first line of defense is critical thinking. If people could think critically, they would be able to avoid the influence of misinformation. But as a cognitive psychologist, I know that each of us (including me) is the weak link in defeating misinformation. We have a limited ability and limited tendency to engage in critical thinking. I continue to worry about the influence of misinformation.

References

Klaczynski, P. A. (1997). Bias in adolescents’ everyday reasoning and its relationship with intellectual ability, personal theories, and self-serving motivation. Developmental Psychology, 33, 273-283.

Stanovich, West, & Toplak (2013). Myside bias, rational thinking, and intelligence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 259-264.