What Fake News Reveals About the Origins of Beliefs and Bias

Aug 20, 2018

Fake news is a term that’s come to define our current political landscape, but it’s nothing new.

Propaganda, lies, and fairy tales have always been part of human discourse.

In this week’s Exploradio, we talk with two researchers looking into the psychology behind believable falsehoods and how to guard against them.

We live in an age where facts are called into question, and the truth is slippery. 

Made-up stories are fed to Americans from sources in Eastern Europe, spreading through social media to infect political discourse.

Hoaxes are believed while the president decries well-researched reporting as fake news.

“The word fake and the word news have been around for a long time, but putting them together is something new,” according to Kent State University assistant professor Mark Whitmore.

He teaches the psychology of leadership at the university’s business school, but he’s also researching the psychology behind fake news.

He says while a definition is elusive, fake news is, essentially, “Information that is non-factual.”

Whitmore and his wife Eve, who has a psychology practice in Stow, are studying what leads people to believe false information and how it affects us.

Truth, lies, and childhood
The Whitmores began by looking at the roots of how we discern fact from fiction.

“When does a child began to understand what’s the difference a lie and truth?” asks Eve Whitmore.

She says it starts early.

Kids as young as three question the veracity of information and feel the need to decide whether or not to believe the things they’re told.

And children are fed a lot of misinformation.

“Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, these are all made-up," says Whitmore, "and children at the age of seven understand that, but they go along with it because you get rewards.”

Whitmore says this points to a basic human response.

“They’re conforming to the belief system,” she says.

A bias toward false beliefs
Mark Whitmore says our childhood tendency to conform extends into adulthood where we believe even blatantly untrue things.

He cites a study where adults were told to fill two empty bottles with water and then label one as water and one as poison.

“And they were asked to pick a bottle to drink out of and they refused to drink out of the bottle labeled [poison] even though they filled that bottle themselves with the same tap water,” says Whitmore.

This Washington D.C. pizza shop inexplicably became the subject of a conspiracy theory claiming it was the center of a child-sex ring involving Democratic politicians. The fake stories convinced a North Carolina man in 2016 to shoot up the place. Luckily no one was injured in the incident now known as 'pizzagate.'
Credit WIKIPEDIA

It all boils down to the fact that we’re hard-wired to stick with our current beliefs regardless of what evidence there is to contradict it.

“Our brains like harmony, they like consistency,” he says.

And Whitmore says when you come across information that aligns with your preconceived notions, “the brain actually sends out a little bit of dopamine, like a little narcotic that feels really good."

It’s called confirmation bias.

Whitmore says the opposite is also true.  When faced with facts that contradict your belief system you feel discomfort.

And that makes it hard to admit when you’re wrong.

Avoiding the fake news echo chamber
Whitmore says technology has amplified the power of false information.

Machine learning employs computer algorithms that track our media consumption and reinforce narrow viewpoints.

He says it can even happen when clicking on the royal wedding too many times.

“I have a whole banner that says Meghan Markel,” Whitmore confesses.

The fake news that was once confined to the grocery checkout line is now our constant companion, and it’s taking its toll.

Eve Whitmore says part of her work is helping people overcome the anxiety that comes from confronting the news.

“What I do every day in private practice is helping people manage their emotions more effectively,” she says.

Mark Whitmore says people’s reluctance to resist false information causes them to act out defensively, scapegoating vulnerable populations, buying into conspiracy theories, turning to violence.

“Again," he says, "they’re trying to protect those preexisting beliefs that they have.”

But how do we guard against the effects of confirmation bias?

The Whitmores say: keep an open mind, embrace critical thinking, practice seeing things from opposite viewpoints, and take efforts to thwart the algorithms that create media echo chambers.