Fake News is Dangerous Because It Sticks In Your Brain
Compared with other animals, we humans come equipped with very little knowledge to help us navigate the world. Instead, we have a remarkable capacity to learn from the people around us in order to develop an understanding of the world, which allows us to adapt to the information available in our environment. This task is so complex that we spend the first few decades of our lives being trained in ways to navigate the world before we are set free to make our own contribution.
In order to learn so much from the people around us, we assume that most of what we hear is true. That way, we can soak up knowledge from all of our experiences as efficiently as possible. This assumption generally serves us well, because most of what we encounter really is true. It would be nearly impossible to communicate with other people if we constantly had to verify the most mundane facts.
Of course, we shouldn’t trust everyone. Studies show that even young children learn who is a reliable source of information. Kids pay less attention to people who have given them wrong information in the past than to people whose information has been valuable. Adults also learn that there are some people in the world whose statements they should discount.
But our capacity to learn from other people is also what makes the prevalence of fake news so dangerous.
Fake news is dressed in the trappings of trustworthiness. The websites that promote false stories look similar to the sites for reputable news organizations. As a result, people are inclined to take the information they present at face value — at least initially.
And that is the real problem. Once in your head, fake news has two effects.
Many fake news stories create an emotional response. They make you angry or upset. During the election, you might have heard fake news about a particular candidate. Later, when you thought about that candidate, you might still feel angry or upset without realizing that the source of the feeling came from the fake news story. That ill feeling then affects the way you interpret other actions by the candidate that can provide further justification for the negative feelings that were initially engendered by a false story.
In addition, research on the continued influence effect suggests that once a false story gets in your head, it continues to affect your beliefs and actions, even after you discover it is false.
The brain has no mechanism that enables you to simply erase a story you hear. Instead, the fake story will be recalled automatically whenever you are thinking about other things related to it. You can learn that a particular story you heard was false, but you then have to recall both the story and the additional knowledge that it was false. That is harder than just recalling the story.
This problem is compounded by the effort that is required to discount a story you discover is false. It takes work to realize that a fake story is altering your opinions and to correct for that effect. You have to be willing to get beyond feelings that were stirred up by that story. Often, you are not inclined to put that amount of effort into your evaluations. As a result, even if you do explicitly note that a story is false, you may not take the time to allow that knowledge to affect what you believe.
That is why the traditional media matter so much. Despite claims of bias, the media do a great job of vetting their work and serving as a trusted source of knowledge. The best way to avoid the negative effects of fake news is to keep from being exposed to it. And for the most important choices, people must make sure they take the time to think carefully about the basis for their opinions.
Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing and founding director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the co-host of the podcast “Two Guys on Your Head” and author of several books including “Brain Briefs.”