Why We Don’t Stop Believin'

Cognitive biases make humans extremely susceptible to misinformation. Evolutionary advantages, brain activity, and human nature may help explain this vulnerability and provide insight into how it can be avoided.

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“New Study: Clear Relationship Between Eye Color and Intelligence”

“Government Officials have Manipulated Stock Prices to Hide Scandals”

“Left-Wingers Are More Likely to Lie to Get a Higher Salary”

Do you know which of these are fake? These headlines are taken from the Misinformation Susceptibility Test (MIST). This test is composed of 10 real headlines taken from objective news outlets and 10 fake headlines generated by ChatGPT. The test taker must identify whether each headline is real or fake. This test, developed in 2023 by psychologists at the University of Cambridge, sheds light on the current state of our vulnerability to misinformation. MIST was administered to 1,516 U.S. adult citizens and, on average, revealed that American adults have a two-thirds success rate for distinguishing real news from fake news. This implies that around one-third of Americans are susceptible to online or media misinformation. This misinformation can potentially be dangerous—look no further than the anti-vaccination movement. Conspiracies, stemming from mistrust in science or in the government, led many individuals to refuse getting the COVID-19 vaccine. This not only increased their own risk of contracting the virus but also put others around them in danger of being infected by them. 

Although some fake news is obviously fabricated, other misinformation can actually be very difficult to identify. Humans possess certain cognitive biases that make them susceptible to misinformation. Cognitive bias refers to the process where people interpret information based on their own experiences or beliefs, which may increase their susceptibility to misinformation. 

The availability heuristic, a type of cognitive bias, is the tendency to believe information that is the easiest to remember. Memories of emotional events are usually more vivid than those of neutral experiences. From an evolutionary perspective, emotional memories—eg: fear and love—guide individuals away from future threats and make them more likely to reproduce. For instance, if you had a confrontation in a sketchy alley, a vivid recollection of this fearful experience will help you remember to avoid walking down alleys alone, therefore heightening your chances of survival. The connection between emotion and memory is also explainable from a neurological perspective. Emotions such as rage increase cortisol levels, which increase connectivity within subregions of the hippocampus. Since the hippocampus is the memory center of the brain, heightened connectivity leads to a greater ease of memory formation and retrieval. Therefore, emotional memories are more retrievable and, as explained by the availability heuristic, more believable.  

Perhaps the confirmation bias is the most researched cognitive bias impacting vulnerability to misinformation. This is the tendency to search for, favor, and use information that is the most consistent with our existing beliefs while ignoring facts that threaten said beliefs. In his paper “Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception,” Yale Psychology professor Dan M. Kahan investigates the idea of identity-protective connection. This study questions the preventative measures that humans take to preserve their intrapersonal relationships. As hypersocial creatures, humans would rather preserve their relationships with family and friends than jeopardize them by changing their beliefs. In a case study during the 2004 presidential election, researchers asked extreme members of both parties to evaluate each of the presidential candidates (Bush and Kerry). The subjects heavily criticized candidates of the opposite party, while ignoring the faults of candidates of their own party. During the subjects’ evaluations, the researchers were tracking their brain activity. During this exercise of confirmation bias, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning, was inactive. Furthermore, the orbitofrontal cortex, which processes emotion, was active, and the brain was rewarded with a rush of dopamine, a feel-good hormone. This pleasurable response acts as a reward that motivates future use of the confirmation bias. 

This explains why humans have become so resistant to reason and evidence. Their emotions are inextricably linked to the persistence of their beliefs. The brain rewards support from beliefs and ignores criticism of those beliefs, thus increasing one’s susceptibility to misinformation. This may play a large role in the rise of radicalism and staunch resistance to facts. Although these biases are tied to fundamental human instincts, you can minimize them by practicing several simple techniques. 

The first step is to make sure that you are completely aware of your ideas and beliefs. Try to explain to someone, or yourself, why you hold the beliefs which you do. You may notice holes in your argument that indicate you might not understand the issue as much as you think you do. By becoming less confident in your beliefs, you will become more receptive to new information. It’s also helpful to search for evidence that contradicts your argument. By accepting opposing information, you will form a more well-rounded and sustainable opinion. 

The key to combating misinformation is trying to understand different perspectives. Accept opposing viewpoints rather than being staunch in collecting evidence for your own. Use objective facts, rather than subjective emotions, to guide you in your research and discovery. Without understanding our biases as humans, the world will only become more polarized. The world is not black and white but rather complex. Progress will only occur when we realize that.