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Why Humans Believe Lies Over Facts and Truth

Hadley’s intro:

Why do humans continue to believe misinformation

they see and hear in the media?  Can facts and

truth change beliefs in falsehoods?

Get answers in guest article courtesy of Washington


It’s been an election cycle packed with

misinformation and conspiracy theories. So why do

so many people believe the lies?

Blame the brain.

Many of the decisions we make as individuals and

as a society depend on accurate information;

however, our psychological biases and

predispositions make us vulnerable to falsehoods.

As a result, misinformation is more likely to be

believed, remembered and later recalled — even

after we learn that it was false.

“On every level, I think that misinformation has

the upper hand,” said Nathan Walter, a professor

of communication studies at Northwestern

University who studies the correction of


Why we fall for misinformation

No one is completely immune to falsehoods, in part

because of how our cognition is built and how

misinformation exploits it.

We use mental shortcuts, or heuristics, to make

many of our judgments, which benefit us. But our

cognitive tendencies can make us susceptible to

misinformation if we are not careful.

“By default, people will believe anything they

see or hear,” said Stephan Lewandowsky, a

cognitive psychologist at the University of

Bristol who specializes in understanding how

people respond to corrections of misinformation.

In our day-to-day lives, “that makes a lot of

sense because most things that we’re exposed to

are true,” he said.

At the same time, the more we see something

repeated, the more likely we are to believe it to

be true. This “illusory truth effect” arises

because we use familiarity and ease of

understanding as a shorthand for truth; the more

something is repeated, the more familiar and

fluent it feels whether it is misinformation or


“There is only typically one true version of a

claim and an infinite number of ways you could

falsify it, right?” said Nadia Brashier, a

psychology professor at Purdue University who

studies why people fall for fake news and

misinformation. “So, if you hear something over

and over again, probabilistically, it’s going to

be the true thing.”

But these shortcuts do not work so well in our

current political environment and social media,

which can repeat and amplify falsehoods. One study

found that even a single exposure to a fake

headline made it seem truer. Politicians often

repeat lies and seem to be aware of the power of

the illusory truth effect, Brashier said.

We are also more susceptible to misinformation

that fits into our worldviews or social

identities, and we can fall into confirmation

bias, which is the tendency to look for and favor

information fitting what we already believe.

False stories and emotionally driven examples are

easier to understand and more immersive than

statistics. “We are navigating this new world of

numbers and probabilities and risk factors,”

Walter said. “But the vessel that we use, our

brain, is very old.”

Why misinformation resists correction

Once we have heard misinformation, it is hard to

uproot even when we want to know the truth.

Multiple studies have found that misinformation

can still influence our thinking even if we

receive a correction and believe it to be true, a

phenomenon known as the “continued influence


In a meta-analysis aggregating the results from 32

studies of over 6,500 people, Walter found that

correcting falsehoods reduces but does not

entirely eliminate the effect of misinformation.

One of the biggest barriers to correcting

misinformation is the fact that hearing the truth

doesn’t delete a falsehood from our memory.

Instead, the falsehood and its correction coexist

and compete to be remembered. Brain imaging

studies conducted by Lewandowsky and his

colleagues found evidence that our brains store

both the original piece of misinformation as well

as its correction.

“It seems to be cognitively almost impossible to

listen to something, understand it and, at the

same time, not believe it,” Lewandowsky said.

Dismissing misinformation requires a whole extra

cognitive step of tagging it as false in our

memory. “But by that time, in a sense, it’s

too late, because it’s already in your

memory,” Lewandowsky said.

Over time, our memory of the fact-check may fade,

leaving us only with the misinformation.

There is evidence that “we’re running up

against basic limitations of human memory when

we’re giving people corrective information,”

Brashier said.

Finally, correcting misinformation is even more

challenging if it is embedded into our identity or

system of belief. People build mental models of

the world to make sense of unfolding situations

and “it’s very difficult to rip out a plank of

this edifice without the whole thing

collapsing,” Lewandowsky said. “If it is an

important component of your mental model, it is

cognitively very difficult to just yank it out and

say it’s false.”

Debunking alone is not enough to combat

misinformation — we also need to be proactive by

“prebunking,” which essentially means

preparing our brain to recognize misinformation

before we encounter it. Much like the way a

vaccine primes your immune system to battle a

foreign invader, prebunking can inoculate and

strengthen your psychological immune system

against viral misinformation.

In one study from this year, Lewandowsky and

colleagues presented almost 30,000 people across

seven experiments with five short videos about

common manipulation techniques — incoherence,

false dichotomies, scapegoating, ad hominem

attacks and emotionally manipulative language.

Each video provided a warning about the impending

misinformation attack and manipulation technique

before presenting a “microdose” of


The study found that watching these videos could

make us more skeptical of falsehoods in the


Another way to protect yourself is to simply pay

attention to whether what you are seeing is

accurate. When people scroll through their social

media feeds, they aren’t always thinking about

accuracy. One recent study found that subtly

nudging people to consider whether what they see

is accurate made them less likely to share


“All of us can fall for misinformation,”

Brashier said. “I’ve fallen for false stories

myself even though this is what I study.”

Do you have a question about human behavior or

neuroscience? Email [email protected] 

we may answer it in a future column.


Interacting with kindhearted honesty is a foundation of

happy, sexy love that lasts,

Hadley Finch

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