Why We Fall for Misinformation

Memory, emotions can affect how people distinguish fact from fiction

Mental & Behavioral Health February 16, 2022
True and false signs

These days, it’s not difficult to find misleading information — and in some cases, outright lies — in the social media, podcasts and TV shows we consume.

While we may think only some people can fall victim to information that is unintentionally or purposefully inaccurate, the truth is that we’re all susceptible, says Robert Shulman, MD, a psychiatrist and acting chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center.

Understanding the ‘misinformation effect’

In the simplest terms, the “misinformation effect” happens when your memory becomes less accurate because of new information you receive after an event, Shulman says. More specifically, your recalled episodic memory can change, which alters how you remember what happened.

Take, for example, an accident between a car and a motorcycle that you witnessed. At the time of the event, you may have seen the motorcycle driver cause the accident. But after hearing an account from another witness describing how the car’s driver was to blame, your memory of the event may change.

“In this way, your memory can be manipulated and may be a way to build truths out of half-truths,” Shulman says. Using misinformation in this way is nothing new — it’s been done at least since ancient Rome by politicians to gain and sustain their power, he adds.

Why false information seems true to us

Today, misinformation is present in many arenas, including public health — particularly about COVID-19 vaccines. A new report by the COVID States Project finds that 16% of Americans still believe misinformation about vaccines. One-third of those who believe vaccine misinformation recognize that they have different views from doctors and scientists.

So, how does this information take hold? The systems that we use to make decisions — known as heuristics — make us more susceptible to misinformation, Shulman says. “The nature of heuristic thinking is that we develop intellectual shortcuts by which we assess events and other things,” Shulman says.

While heuristics serve a purpose and help us make quick decisions and judgements, they can also contribute to biases. For example, we may use an intellectual shortcut to make assumptions about people from different cultural backgrounds or who possess differing political views.

The opposite of heuristic thinking is phenomenological thinking, a concept that has its roots in philosophy, Shulman says. “Phenomenology is looking at something without any preconceived notions,” he says. “But it’s hard to look at a person, witness an event or read the news or anything else without a preconceived notion. And our heuristic thinking is what really contributes to our preconceived notions and our intellectual shortcuts.”

The role of emotions

Our emotions often can play a role in heuristic thinking. “Emotionality contributes to our inability to accept information that doesn’t feel good to us,” Shulman says. “We tend to like what’s comfortable to us and avoid what’s uncomfortable to us.”

That is why everyone can fall victim to misinformation. “We’re all vulnerable to it because our emotions come into play,” he says.

However, some of us may be more susceptible to misinformation. “Some people may be more vulnerable because they are more tuned into their emotional states and because of how much they think or believe according to their feelings,” he says.

When we rely heavily on feelings and heuristic shortcuts, we may be less willing to consider information that goes against our beliefs. “It can risk our willingness to hear the other side, consider another’s point of view or be open to the experience of others,” Shulman says. This can reduce our ability to learn and reinforce division.

Strategies to reduce misinformation

Even if we all tend to believe what we want to believe at times, there are strategies we can use to bypass some of our intellectual shortcuts and think more phenomenologically, Shulman says.

First, he recommends not accepting information at face value and doing your best to put things into context. “Consider what you’re reading or hearing to be misinformation until you are able to delve in and see if there’s validity to it,” he says. One way to do this is by visiting respected fact-checking websites, such as FactCheck.org.

Shulman also recommends finding out who is funding the source of the information, which can help you uncover the motive behind what is being shared. “See where the money is coming from, and you may better understand the motivations,” he says.

And when you’re presented with information from a different viewpoint, try to listen, keep an open mind and be respectful, he suggests.

Finally, be aware that we all have these automatic responses to processing information. “Our tendency is to use our shortcuts because it’s easy,” he says. “It’s harder to control our responses and try to look at things in a more phenomenological sense to understand them.”

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