Psychologists Discover Deluded People and Religious Fundamentalists More Likely to Believe Fake News

Scientists have found an overlap between people who believe in fake news and religious fundamentalists, dogmatic people and those who harbor deluded ideas.

Psychologists hope their findings can be used to battle the spread of false information online.

Often ambiguously used by President Donald Trump to attack legitimate news organizations, “fake news” is a contentious phrase, and its definition can vary greatly depending on its user. Last week, the British government went so far as to ban the term in official documents, after describing it as “poorly defined and misleading."

phone-stock Researchers at Yale investigated what sort of person is most likely to believe fake news. Getty Images

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In the study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, fake news was defined as fabricated news stories presented as being from legitimate sources on social media, to deceive the public for ideological or financial gain.

The researchers investigated whether two styles of thought affected the likelihood of an individual believing fake news reports.

The first was actively open-minded thinking, where a person uses evidence to revise their beliefs, and seeks out alternative explanations to ensure they have an accurate understanding of any given topic, explained Michael Bronstein, author of the study at the Yale University Department of Psychology.

The second was analytic thinking. Bronstein told Newsweek: “Analytic thinking involves the disposition to initiate deliberate thought processes in order to reflect on intuitions and gut feelings.”

For their study, researchers recruited over 900 adults who lived in the U.S. and were aged 18 or over. They were given tasks including rating the accuracy of fake and legitimate news stories. Both fake pro-Republicans and pro-Democrat stories were used in the tests. To measure levels of delusion in the participants, the researchers asked respondents questions such as: “Do you ever feel as if there is a conspiracy against you?”

In the past, studies have suggested people who think less analytically are more likely to be tricked by fake news, the authors noted. 

The new study suggested people who do not employ their open-minded thinking and analytic thinking faculties are more likely to believe false stories. In turn, this could explain why dogmatic people, religious fundamentalists, and those who hold delusion-like ideas (including conspiracy theories and paranormal phenomena according to the authors) are more vulnerable to believing fake news. 

However, the researchers were unable to find a causal link between thought processes and accepting fake news as the truth. 

“If this causal relationship exists, then one might employ interventions that were previously developed to increase engagement in analytic and actively open-minded thinking to reduce belief in fake news,” said Bronstein.

Asked how those who consume news should change their behaviors off the back of the research, Bronstein commented: “One of the challenges in consuming news via social media is that it can be overwhelming—there is so much information that it might be hard to think in an actively open-minded or analytic way about everything you see.

He continued: “However, because mere exposure to fake news can increase belief in it, we’d ask readers to think analytically about the news they share on social media, e.g. by taking a moment to consider the evidence for and against it."

Dr. Paul Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Social Media and Digital Society at the University of Sheffield, U.K., who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek this is among the first empirical studies to investigate how vulnerable people are to believing fake news.

The research adds to the consensus amongst academics who study misinformation and disinformation on social media that policymakers would be wise to invest in media literacy and programmes which teach critical thinking skills in "response to the information disorders currently affecting liberal democracies."

However, Reilly, who recently led a separate study into the role of politicians and local journalists in combating fake news, argued the study was limited because it appeared to "conceptualise mis-and disinformation as a social media problem."

"Many people experience ‘fake news’ via other mechanisms, including traditional media and word of mouth. It is too simplistic to suggest that information disorder in democracies can be solved by teaching citizens how to check the authenticity of information they are exposed to online," he said. 

This article has been updated with comment from Dr. Paul Reilly​.

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