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,”
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 BrainMatters@washpost.com
we may answer it in a future column.
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