No one would say they want fake news. But a recent study also shows why technologies alone can never extinguish disinformation. The reality is fake news makes us feels good. Otherwise, no one would fall prey to it. When we feel outraged, or angry about an injustice, we are feeling morally superior. It’s our ego that seeks confirmation. And our ego couldn’t care less whether the information is true or not.
Ben Lyons is a professor of communication at the University of Utah. Recently, he and his colleagues surveyed 8,200 respondents. They showed volunteers headlines presented in a format like the Facebook feed. They then asked them to decide whether those stories were true. They also asked them to rate their own ability to spot falsehood.
Ben’s findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, paint a grim picture.
Three in four individuals overestimated their ability to spot false headlines. They placed themselves, on average, 22 percentiles higher than their score warranted. And here’s the stunning conclusion: about 90% of the participants told researchers they believed they were above average in their ability to sniff out fake stories.
That’s right—it’s something that’s not even statistically possible.
To be sure, we know quite a bit about this illusory superiority. Self-deception knows no bounds, so long as it feels good. And that’s dangerous. Previous studies have shown that drivers believed they drove more safely than the average. Professional singers overestimated their own performances. And most students believed that they were above the median in getting along with others.
But being overconfident about the ability to discern between fact and fiction is one thing. Most internet users don’t even think they come across fake news that often. “Relatively few participants indicate having seen or shared it,” wrote Lyons in the study. What they read they thought to be real. Why? Because things they click rather than ignore on Facebook are ones that already fit well with their existing beliefs. Fake news isn’t designed to change opinions. It latches on to the structure of our minds.
Your Choices Are as Good as Your Beliefs
We make choices based on what we believe about the world. Should I wear a mask going out? Should I take the vaccine next week? Should I see the dentist this month? The more accurate our beliefs in general, the better the choices we make over time, and the higher the quality of our lives. That’s why seeking truth is important. It matters to our own well-being. Paying attention to counterevidence is key. It’s how we update our mental models.
But smart people are the worst. They skillfully seek evidence to confirm their belief and then discard contradictory data points with “sound reasoning.” Smart people are good at pointing out the biases of others but are oblivious to their own. And psychologists have found mathematical aptitude—a common measure of cognitive capacity—in fact, inversely correlates to people’s ability to correctly interpret data on emotionally charged topics. The smarter we are, the more mistakes we make when something doesn’t conform to our worldview. Especially if the topic challenges our personal identity.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center studied the ideological gap between the more educated and the less educated. Not too surprisingly, those with more education tend to be more liberal. But what the study also shows is the higher the qualification a person can attain, the more extreme their worldview becomes. A smaller portion of postgraduates hold a “mixed view” on politics. More of them are “consistently liberal.” Whereas within the general population, more people are politically moderate. In other words, the higher educated a person is, the more stubborn they are at the extreme.
I am a proud liberal, so I am offended by this conclusion. My mind constantly screams, “how could people not understand gun control is…” But the counterintuitive findings are the point. Educated people are good storytellers. They tell convincing stories because they can digest vast amounts of information and construct it into a cohesive narrative. Their spin doctors are excellent. And so, they go on to tell themselves stories to feel safe. It feels safer to deal with a world we can understand within our existing frame of mind.
Is it a wonder then that smokers believe in those supposedly less harmful tobacco products, a claim that contradicts scientific evidence? Think about which is easier: to quit smoking or to believe something would cause less harm.
Now you ask, what can I do to become better at truth seeking? After all, no one wants to be a righteous critic who no one understands and who finally dies in poverty.
Nothing Is Black and White
Founding partner Nelson Peltz of Trian Fund Management once said, “We’d rather be rich than right.” That might sum up the pragmatic nature of the hedge fund industry. Putting greed aside, when Peltz forms a belief about a company, a CEO, an industry, or a country, his company needs to take a position. A bet. There’s always money on the line. Suddenly, it forces the mind to see the different degrees of gray. You can make a small bet or a huge bet. Everything always has a degree of uncertainty. A hedge fund manager accepts nothing is black and white, 0% or 100%. For that reason, no fund manager would place everything into one single investment opportunity.
Life is the same. Politics is the same. Family is the same. If you think of belief as only 100% right or 100% wrong, professional poker player Annie Duke observed, you only have two choices when confronting new information that contradicts your beliefs. You would need to either
a) make the massive shift in your opinion of yourself from 100% right to 100% wrong, or
b) ignore or discredit the new information.
Because it feels bad to be wrong, most people choose (b).
Set your beliefs as something dynamic, something open to change. That makes it easier to engage in a world where others would prefer to do exactly the opposite.
Thanks for reading—and be well.
This article has been co-authored with Lawrence Tempel, a researcher at The Center of Future Readiness at IMD