With the rise of absurd and dangerous conspiracy theories like those put forward by QAnon and voraciously consumed by Trump supporters, it is obvious that America has gone from a fake news problem to a fake news crisis. To make things worse, those peddling fake news have accused legitimate media channels of being the source of false information, confusing vulnerable people who lack the logic and reasoning skills to know better. But what can be done about it?
Well, the truth is it is going to be an extremely tough battle, but the first step is to understand, on a psychological and biological level, why people are susceptible to bogus news in the first place.
According to a series of presentations at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, belief systems and reasoning processes that develop early in one’s life—often to cope with the stress and anxiety of an unpredictable world—may lie at the root of why some people are more vulnerable than others to fake news.
According to Mark Whitmore from Kent State University, an assistant professor of management and information systems, humans are hardwired for biased assimilation of political information. In other words, as an instinct we tend to be more open to reasoning or evidence that confirms our current beliefs, and less open to new information that challenges our own worldviews.
“At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs. In fact, one could say the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”
This natural tendency to accept fake news in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias, and it has been found more often in individuals suffering from anxiety, who see the world as a dangerous place, which makes them defensive and less open to information they find threatening. With this in mind, it may not be so surprising that so many Trump supporters are susceptible to fake news, as research has shown that conservatives are statistically more prone to anxiety and threat-related attentional biases.
Eve Whitmore, a developmental psychologist at Western Reserve Psychological Associates in Stow, Ohio, points out that many biases and beliefs are formed during childhood, when one is learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality—which means bad reasoning habits can be cemented before individuals are taught to value empirical evidence and strict logic.
“From the beginning, parents reinforce to their children the skill of pretending in order to cope with the realities inherent in culture and society. Children’s learning about make-believe and mastery of it becomes the basis for more complex forms of self-deception and illusion into adulthood.”
Through engaging in “make-believe,” little kids frequently act out simplified versions of life scenarios, like playing house, which often serve to reinforce beliefs and cultural norms inherited from their parents. From this, they learn that it is okay to pretend that certain things are true even when it conflicts with reality.
While this is innocent enough, as some of these children get older and go out into the real world, they have to develop critical thinking skills, to do things like excel at school and navigate through a complex world. But these reasoning skills sometimes conflict with the religious or ideological realities they experience at home. To avoid friction with their family, or worse yet, rejection, some kids will choose to rationalize those false beliefs and faulty logic. As this behavior becomes routine and unconscious, critical examination goes out the window. This sets the stage for susceptibility to all kinds of irrational beliefs and logically-inconsistent narratives, like the spurious conspiracy theories that have invaded the minds of staunch Trump supporters.
To make things worse, in today’s media environment there are often multiple simultaneous messages that contradict each other, and for those feeling confused and overwhelmed with a complicated reality, it becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction.
While such a problem may be difficult to counter, Whitmore believes psychology offers a number of evidence-based strategies that can help defend against the allure of fake news. A particularly effective one may be to reduce the anxiety that promotes confirmation bias and makes comforting or satisfying false information so appealing.
“One positive defense strategy is humor. Watching late night comedy or political satire, while not actually altering or changing the source of the stressor, can help reduce the stress and anxiety associated with it. Another is sublimation, where you channel your negative feelings into something positive, such as running for office, marching in a protest or volunteering for a social cause.”
The psychologists also recommend that people develop an open mind by intentionally exposing themselves to differing points of view. Perhaps most of all, individuals should learn to question what they are taught at an early age, to inoculate against indoctrination and brainwashing later in life.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.