With the proliferation of absurd and dangerous conspiracy theories, it is obvious that America has gone from a fake news problem to a fake everything crisis. And to make it worse, those pushing fake scenarios have accused legitimate sources of being the source of false information, confusing vulnerable people who lack the logic and reasoning skills to know better. But what can be done about it?
Truth – it’s going to be an extremely tough battle, but the first step is to understand, on a psychological and biological level, why people are susceptible to bogus information in the first place.
Humans are hardwired for biased assimilation of political information. As an instinct we tend to be more open to reasoning or evidence that confirms our current beliefs, and less open to new information that challenges our own worldviews.
At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs. In fact, the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.
This natural tendency to accept false information in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias, and it has been found more often in individuals suffering from anxiety, who see the world as a dangerous place, which makes them defensive and less open to information they find threatening.
Many biases and beliefs are formed during childhood, when one is learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality—which means bad reasoning habits can be cemented before individuals are taught to value empirical evidence and strict logic.
From the earliest years, parents reinforce to their children the skill of pretending in order to cope with the realities inherent in culture and society. Children’s learning about make-believe and mastery of it becomes the basis for more complex forms of self-deception and illusion into adulthood.
Through engaging in “make-believe,” little kids frequently act out simplified versions of life scenarios, like playing house, which often serve to reinforce beliefs and cultural norms inherited from their parents. From this, they learn that it is okay to pretend that certain things are true even when it conflicts with reality.
While this is innocent enough, as some of these children get older and go out into the real world, they have to develop critical thinking skills, to do things like excel at school and navigate through a complex world. But these reasoning skills sometimes conflict with the religious or ideological realities they experience at home. To avoid friction with their family, or worse yet, rejection, some kids will choose to rationalize those false beliefs and faulty logic. As this behavior becomes routine and unconscious, critical examination goes out the window. This sets the stage for susceptibility to all kinds of irrational beliefs and logically-inconsistent narratives.
To make things worse, in today’s media environment there are often multiple simultaneous messages that contradict each other, and for those feeling confused and overwhelmed with a complicated reality, it becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction.
While such a problem may be difficult to counter, psychology offers a number of evidence-based strategies that can help defend against the allure of fake information. A particularly effective one may be to reduce the anxiety that promotes confirmation bias and makes comforting or satisfying false information so appealing.
One positive defense strategy is sublimation, where you channel your negative feelings into something positive, such as volunteering for a social cause.
The psychologists also recommend that people develop an open mind by intentionally exposing themselves to differing points of view. Perhaps most of all, individuals should learn to question what they are taught at an early age, to inoculate against indoctrination and brainwashing later in life.