Who believes fake news? Study identifies 3 groups of people

Then again, maybe the study is fake news too.

  • Recent research challenged study participants to pick real news headlines from fake ones.
  • The results showed that people prone to delusional thinking, religious fundamentalists, and dogmatists tended to believe all news, regardless of plausibility.
  • What can you do to protect yourself and others from fake news?

Did you know that in the fall of 2016, Hillary Clinton's leaked emails contained coded messages alluding to a pedophilia ring held in the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant? Or that billionaire George Soros personally funded a migrant caravan to invade the United States?

While most people would have difficulty believing these claims without more evidence, many are willing to accept them as is. "Pizzagate" has been thoroughly debunked (Comet Ping Pong doesn't even have a basement), and the individual who originally posted the migrant caravan theory admitted that he had made it up whole cloth.

Arguably, one of the most unique aspects of the 2016 election was the rise of fake news. But some of these headlines seem so obviously outside the realm of reality it's hard to see how someone could buy into them. However, recent research published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition helps to explain which groups are more prone to believing fake news and why.

Who believes in fake news?

The study focused on two key characteristics: analytical thinking and open mindedness. Analytical thinking is simply the tendency to analyze cause and effect, to consider things logically; it requires the suppression of immediate, intuitive conclusions and the use of working memory to consider an argument's premises and reach a logically sound conclusion.

Open-minded thinking is related, but slightly different. Open-minded thinkers are prone to actively searching for alternative explanations for things, and they are willing to incorporate information that challenges previously held beliefs.

We all have a greater or lesser tendency to think in these ways. But prior research has shown that these two characteristics tend to be low in three groups of people: religious fundamentalists, people prone to delusional thinking, and people prone to dogmatism (i.e., the expression of opinions and beliefs as though they were fact). Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that these three groups were the worst at distinguishing between fake and real news. Here's how they found that out.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Comet Ping Pong, the pizza shop that was the subject of a conspiracy theory regarding an alledged pedophilia ring run by democrats, including Hillary Clinton. On December 4, 2016, an armed man fired off an AR-15 inside the shop after he entered with the apparent intention to investigate the claims.

The study structure

The researchers recruited 900 people to participate in a series of empirically validated surveys. Each survey measured a different aspect involved in the study. One determined how likely a participant was to have delusional thoughts by asking questions like "Do you ever believe there is a conspiracy against you?" Other surveys determined a person's tendency to dogmatism and religious fundamentalism.

The researchers also measured open-mindedness and analytical thinking using surveys like the Cognitive Reflection Test, which asks questions with intuitive but incorrect answers, like "If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?" (The answer is 5 minutes, not 100.)

Then, the researchers presented the participants with a series of article headlines, cover images, and an abstract, much in the same way that news articles are presented on social media sites. To account for any political bias, a mix of pro-Republican and pro-Democrat news headlines were included, equally split between real and fake news.

The researchers found that individuals who scored high in religious fundamentalism, dogmatism, and delusional thinking were more likely to believe both the fake and real news headlines. What's more, they confirmed that religious fundamentalism, dogmatism, and delusional thinking were correlated with lower tendencies to analytical and open-minded thinking. On the flip side of the coin, analytical and open-minded thinking were correlated with better discrimination between real and fake news.

Bronstein et al., 2018.

Examples of fake news from the study. On the left is pro-Democrat fake news, while the right image shows pro-Republican fake news.

What can we do about this?

In a world where anybody with a Facebook account can act as their own digital publisher, these findings are troubling. What's more, one of the study's authors, Michael Bronstein, told Inverse magazine that "Research suggests that merely being exposed to fake news can increase your belief in it." When social media sites are inundated with fake news, claims that appear ludicrous at first glance become normalized.

Once an individual has come to accept a given piece of fake news as fact, they are unlikely to change their mind about it, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. In fact, doing so can strengthen their belief in the fake news article. Psychologists refer to this as the "backfire effect."

For his part, Bronstein frames this conundrum in a more positive light: "People may be able to help others avoid falling for fake news by thinking analytically about the news they share on social media, which may help them avoid inadvertently sharing fake news." He also suggests that we find "a source with a reputation for consistently and carefully vetting its stories, rather than just reading and accepting what gets shared via social media."

Careful news consumers can familiarize themselves with known fake-news websites, some of which, like NBCnews.com.co, mimic reputable sources. It can also be beneficial to use fact-checking sites like Politifact or Snopes when you come across a story that smells fishy. Unfortunately, if you plan to cite such websites to somebody sharing a story about how 53,000 dead people voted in Florida, don't be surprised if they're dismissed as "fake news."




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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.