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New Research Shows Why People Believe False Information

Our brains tend to retrieve the most accessible information, even if false.

A recent study from Northwestern University is very timely, given the rise of false stories and conspiracy theories generating news coverage these days. Summarized here and published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, It sheds some light on why people are so often influenced by false information. That’s especially relevant to the many falsehoods circulating through social media—especially those made or encouraged by President-elect Trump, which have been widely documented.

The study finds that people tend to quickly download inaccurate or blatantly false statements into memory because it’s easier than critically evaluating and analyzing what they’ve heard. Then later, according to the lead author David Rapp, the brain pulls up the incorrect information first because it’s less work to retrieve recently presented material. “If it’s available, people tend to think they can rely on it. But just because you can remember what someone said, doesn’t make it true.”

So, even when we know better, our brains often rely on inaccurate or misleading information to make future decisions.

I think this study’s findings have importance for understanding falsehoods generated by the political arena, especially the environment surrounding the 2016 Presidential campaign and its aftermath. For example, Trump regularly cited blatantly false information - and many people swallowed it whole, despite disconfirming evidence. Even now, with his recent claim that thousands of votes were illegal - without a shred of evidence - his apologists and supporters claim it’s true. Likewise, with his assertion that there’s no evidence about Russia’s interference in the election via planting false information, despite our intelligence angencies' conclusion that it did.

The study shows that it’s even harder to avoid relying on misinformation when accurate and inaccurate information is mixed together. Rapp says, “We’re bombarded with tons of information all day; it’s a nightmare to critically evaluate all of it. We often assume sources are reliable. It’s not that people are lazy, though that could certainly contribute to the problem. It’s the computational task of evaluating everything that is arduous and difficult, as we attempt to preserve resources for when we really need them.”

He adds, “Trump just says things, but once you can get them encoded into people’s memories, they believe it, use it or rely on it. Disentangling truth from falsehoods when they are mixed up from different sources makes the challenge even more difficult.”

In the study, Rapp outlines several ways to avoid falling into the misinformation trap:

  • Critically evaluate information right away. That may help prevent your brain from storing the wrong information. “You want to avoid encoding those potentially problematic memories,” Rapp said.
  • Consider the source. People are more likely to use inaccurate information from a credible source than from an unreliable source, according to Rapp’s previous research. “At this point, it’s even clear to Donald Trump’s proponents that his words are often nonsensical,” Rapp said. “But his strong supporters who want him to be right will do less work to evaluate his statements.”
  • Beware of “truthy” falsehoods. “When the truth is mixed with inaccurate statements, people are persuaded, fooled and less evaluative, which prevents them from noticing and rejecting the inaccurate ideas,” Rapp said. For example, during the campaign Trump initially said he saw the video of money changing hands for kidnapped individuals in Iran; he later retracted it. At the same time, news outlets reported there actually was a video.

I think that it’s also crucial to call out and respond to false information - an obligation of all citizens, especially as we may face increasing attack on democratic institutions and the spectre of Orwellian redefinitions of “truth.”

Blog: Progressive Impact

Center for Progressive Development

© 2016 Douglas LaBier