Believing Disinformation: Is Human Psychology at Fault?
Disinformation posed a threat to democracy long before the Ukrainian conflict. It was present for elections in the US as well as in the EU and has been working hard to discourage, confuse, and divide populations. The fight against disinformation is ongoing, but with so many actors, it seems impossible to completely eliminate its influence. However, it is possible that human psychology is also to blame for imperfect resilience? Studies show that our need to fit in, biases, and continued influence effect among other phenomena may be partly to blame for the effectiveness of disinformation.
Social and evolutionary psychologists have found that social connections are important for both survival and wellbeing. Research by the American Psychological Association, demonstrated that people feel pressure to share disinformation if their peers do so and show less desire for social connection with people who do not share the same information. Hence, our need for social connection makes conformity and social pressure key motivators for spreading fake news. Furthermore, biases that result from social interactions also affect the type of news we believe and share.
We tend to favor information which comes from our social groups; this creates a phenomenon called an “echo chamber” in which we are exposed only to information which coincides with our own beliefs and those reinforced by others. This strengthens the effects of confirmation bias, because we are exposed to information that we are more likely to believe. With confirmation bias, we seek information that coincides with our beliefs and believe information that we want to be true. This heightens our chance of falling for disinformation because if it aligns with our beliefs and appears in our echo chamber, we are more likely to believe it. Disinformation is often tailored to an audience and, hence, is worded in ways that align with the target audience’s beliefs and becomes harder to detect. Hence, our sense of connection with our community and our tendency to search for information that aligns with our views make us easy targets for disinformation.
Moreover, the continued influence effect shows that our belief in disinformation persists even after the information is proven to be false. This occurs because we seek to avoid the psychological discomfort of admitting to having believed the wrong information. Our tendency to believe in information that aligns with our beliefs only heightens this feeling of discomfort when we are faced with the fact that we believed in disinformation. This is potentially why we continue to believe in disinformation, even after it has been disproven.
Understanding the psychological and sociological workings behind why we are susceptible to disinformation can help us find ways to combat it. Our fight against disinformation has to start by focusing on psychological aspects, not only on platform algorithms. Inoculation, which warns people about being exposed to disinformation before actual exposure, has proven to be effective and is a step in the right direction. Similar efforts must be made to help people combat the feeling of discomfort when confronted with facts so that they may accept new information. In general, if we want our fight against disinformation to be effective, we must consider the human psychology which plays a role in the problem.
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