Even when we know they’re not true, false news stories can still sound captivating—if not downright convincing. Let’s explore the brain science of how media misinformation manipulates the mind so we can respond with biblical, critical thinking.
I still remember my first introduction to false news.
It happened at a grocery store checkout, where a much smaller version of me was waiting in line beside my dad. I heard his chortle before I saw the headline—or rather, the photo beside it. The grinning baby in the image wouldn’t have been remarkable, except for the set of fully formed antlers supposedly sprouting from its head. The caption read, “Baby born with antlers—mom says, ‘He’s a little dear!’”
“And that,” remarked my dad, turning the moment into an opportunity to teach me critical thinking, “is called a tabloid.”
Although the tabloid story was obviously faked, the fact that it’s stayed in my mind all these years highlights how deeply lies can burrow in our brains—even when we know they’re false. As Harvard law professor Cas Sunstein described this phenomenon,
Lies lodge in the human mind. They are like cockroaches: You can’t quite get rid of them. . . . Sure, you might not believe a source that you have learned to distrust. But most of the time, we assume that what we hear is true.1
Sunstein explained that this human tendency towards belief has been dubbed “truth bias,” adding,
Even if you are informed that what you have heard is false — a joke or an act of malice — you are likely to have a lingering sense that it is true, or at least that it might be true. That impression can last a long time.2
Once we’ve heard a lie—even one as absurd as an antler-headed infant—we can’t unhear it. Even if we know they’re false, lies often leave a lasting impact on us. This is a significant reality with significant implications, especially in today’s digital information age. So, let’s take a closer look at the science behind “fake news,”3 to better understand how we can practice biblical critical thinking in response.
To investigate why misinformation seems to be thriving online, one researcher hypothesized that false news stories contain elements which tend to especially “stand out” to the human brain.4 True stories often have these elements, called cognitive preferences, as well. But false stories, being untethered from the constraints of reality, can be specially crafted with them. These cognitive preferences5 include
Along with these features, other elements the study considered included themes that evoke disgust, relate to sexuality, or involve celebrities. Results revealed that out of 260 articles from sites flagged as false news sources, 86% contained at least one of the features considered, with social, celebrity, and threatening (negative) themes appearing the most often.
These cognitive preferences may help explain why fake headlines can strike us as interesting. But why might they also sound true? The answer seems to lie in the way our brains process information.
As a quick recap from earlier posts, many researchers believe the brain uses two channels to process information. One channel involves careful, logical reasoning, while the other uses automatic, intuitive thinking to make snap judgements based on factors besides logic—like emotions or aesthetics. These snap judgements tend to follow rules of thumb called heuristics, which serve as decision-making shortcuts. Although useful, these shortcuts are not 100% reliable and can lead to faulty thinking patterns called cognitive biases. Together, heuristics and biases help explain why arguments with logical errors (fallacies) sound persuasive.
A recent paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences described multiple studies which show how false news stories exploit these processes in our brains.8 To do so, false news tends to harness four major persuasive forces which previous posts have unpacked:
Because messages we’ve heard before are easier for our brains to process, repeated messages tend to sound true—even if they’re highly implausible,9 and even if we know they’re false.10 This cognitive bias, called the illusionary truth effect, seems to be a major culprit behind the success of false headlines.11
For instance, research suggests that people are more likely to believe a false headline they’ve seen at least once before, even if it goes against their political stances.12 Watch out though—one study found that people who were trying to spot “fake news” tended to call repeated messages false even when they were true.13 Altogether, these experiments remind us to judge messages based on their content, not just on whether we’ve seen them before.
Another way false news can pack persuasive punch is to exploit the brain’s tendency to believe messages from authoritative sources (that is, the authority bias). Less-than-credible news sources can leverage the authority biases by mimicking legitimate sources, for instance, by presenting professional-looking websites complete with quality visuals. False news stories may also make non-specific authority claims, like “experts say . . . ” or “studies show . . . ” without providing references for further fact-checking. And research suggests that people are more likely to believe news stories shared by a public figure they trust.14
Notably, even the most reliable sources can make mistakes, as happens when reputable news outlets publish information which turns out to be false. So, while source credibility gives us an important clue to how seriously we can take a message, believing messages only because they come from authoritative sources is a type of faulty logic called the appeal to authority fallacy.
Another fallacy involves judging messages based on emotions rather than logic. Emotionally charged false news stories bypass our logical thinking by exploiting a mental shortcut called the affect heuristic, which we use to make snap decisions based on emotional reactions. Research suggests that, compared to true political headlines, fake political headlines simmer with significantly more negative emotions.15 Other experiments have found that people are more likely to believe fake news when experiencing stronger emotions, or when relying on emotions rather than logic to evaluate headlines.16
False headlines can also persuade by harnessing the bandwagon effect, a cognitive bias which describes our tendency to follow the majority’s consensus. For example, some research suggests that the more social media likes, shares, and clicks a low-credibility news story wracks up, the more likely people are to believe it—and the less likely they are to fact-check it.17,18
Along with these four persuasion forces, a fluke of psychology called the confirmation bias has been implicated to explain why people are likely to believe and share “fake news.” This bias occurs when people look for information that supports their prior beliefs while paying less attention to information that contradicts them. For instance, some research suggests people are more likely to believe headlines which support their prior political beliefs.19 However, recent research suggests the confirmation bias does not contribute to the spread of “fake news” as much as researchers may have originally suspected. As the paper from Trends in Cognitive Sciences summarized,
It is important to note . . . that the effect of political concordance is typically much smaller than that of the actual veracity of the news. In other words, true but politically discordant news is typically believed much more than false but politically concordant news – politics does not trump truth. Furthermore, greater overall belief in politically consistent news does not necessarily indicate politically motivated reasoning. . . . Reasoning (or lack thereof) is much more strongly related to truth discernment than is political concordance, whereas political concordance is much more strongly related to overall belief than is reasoning.20 (emphasis added)
In short, people’s likelihood of falling for fake news has far less to do with their political stances than with their critical thinking skills.
By now, we’ve seen how a little brain science can help us understand the way false news affects the mind. False news intrigues by appealing to cognitive preferences, including the brain’s tendency to fixate on the negative. It persuades by exploiting heuristics and biases related to forces including repetition, authority, conformity, and emotion. And once a false story has burrowed into our minds, we cannot unhear it any more than we can unsee an antler-headed baby.
In light of this, some researchers, corporations, and even governments are advocating for various forms of censorship to squelch the tide of “fake news.”21,22 That’s an especially ominous prospect in a culture which has departed from God’s Word as its foundation for understanding truth and morality, leaving fallible humans in charge of defining what counts as “fake.”
The good news? God’s Word provides us with an infallible basis for knowing truth, and therefore, for thinking critically. And there’s a strong, research-backed case to be made that biblical critical thinking—not censorship—is the answer to today’s climate of media misinformation. But more on that next time.