Why Does Misinformation Spread?

Psychological science has identified several seeds of false beliefs.

One is the power of mere repetition.
How often have people heard or read it: Climate change is a hoax. Islamic terrorism is a grave threat to the United States (never mind that, of 230,000 murders since 9/11, only 123 have been perpetuated by Muslims. Moreover, Islamic terrorists have killed many orders of magnitude more fellow Mulsims then Christians.
Mere repetition makes statements easier to process and remember. The power of familiar, hard-to-ease falsehoods and fake news is appreciated by political manipulators, from those in Orwelll’s “1984” to those running today’s presidential campaigns. Unfortunately, rebuttals sometimes backfire because they repeat the myth.

The power of confirmation bias.
In a may 2016 national survey, those favorable to Trump believed Obama was Muslim rather than Christian by a 65% to 13% margin. Those unfavorable to Trump believed the reverse by a mirror image of 64% to 13%.

The power of cognitively available anecdotes.
A brutal crime may make the world seem more violent that it actually is. Do not believe anecdotes. Insist upon data and statistics. Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data.

The power of group polarization. Groups tend to have similar beliefs. Indeed that is likely why the group has formed. However, do not blame this on the internet. (See the healthy memory blog post, “The Truth About the Internet.”

To understand why misinformation spreads as well as how to counter this misinformation. Kahneman’s Two Process View of Cognition can be quite helpful. System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. Islamophobic responses are essentially System 1 responses. Learning is associative and slow. For something to become a System 1 process requires much repetition and practice. Activities such as walking, driving, and conversation are primarily System 1 processes. They occur rapidly and with little apparent effort. We would not have survived if we could not do this types of processing rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions. System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through.

Moreover, System 1 is the default mode of processing. So when you read or hear something, the default mode is to believe it. Then further repetitions serve to consolidate this belief. Remember that one of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for errors. However, to do so require cognitive effort, thinking. So it pays to examine your beliefs carefully to see if they’re justified and whether they should be disbanded or modified.

This post is largely based on an article by David G. Myers titled Misinformation, Misconceptions, and our Teaching Mission in the Association for Psychological Science publication “Observer, September 2017.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “Why Does Misinformation Spread?”

  1. russvane3 Says:

    Your 123 is misinformation or it is a very unusual data set. We have fought Taliban and Al Qaeda for numerous years. Both qualify as Muslims.

  2. healthymemory Says:

    True. The statement refers to the domestic United States post 9/11

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