An intriguing new study released last week in Psychological Science in the Public Interest reveals why people are more apt to believe false information being fed to them by the media and politicians.
According to the team of psychological scientists working on the study, led by Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia, the main reason that people are more likely to believe false information (for example, that climate change is a hoax) is because it actually takes less brain power to believe a statement is false than to accept it as truth. Finding the truth takes time and effort that people often don’t care enough to spend on particular issues that aren’t of immediate concern.
A few excerpts from the report:
The main reason that misinformation is sticky, according to the researchers, is that rejecting information actually requires cognitive effort. Weighing the plausibility and the source of a message is cognitively more difficult than simply accepting that the message is true – it requires additional motivational and cognitive resources. If the topic isn’t very important to you or you have other things on your mind, misinformation is more likely to take hold.
And when we do take the time to thoughtfully evaluate incoming information, there are only a few features that we are likely to pay attention to: Does the information fit with other things I believe in? Does it make a coherent story with what I already know? Does it come from a credible source? Do others believe it?
Misinformation is especially sticky when it conforms to our preexisting political, religious, or social point of view. Because of this, ideology and personal worldviews can be especially difficult obstacles to overcome.
Even worse, efforts to retract misinformation often backfire, paradoxically amplifying the effect of the erroneous belief.
In the United States, we’ve seen several major misinformation campaigns over the years, perpetrated by both the media and politicians. Some of the most prominent campaigns include attempts to convince Americans that climate change is a hoax, that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the attacks of 9/11, and that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in America. To refute all of these claims by “leaders” would take time and research by individuals, which is often neglected. As the report explains, this is how these misinformation campaigns become successful.