It’s Science Wednesday. Today marks the start of a new administration in the US government. It also marks a much-needed shift to trusting in science again. Science is the best tool we have to combat the crises currently plaguing the US as well as the world: the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Over the last year, as we’ve dealt with turmoil and trauma, we have seen more and more people succumbing to conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory can be defined as an explanation for events that relies on the belief that powerful groups of people are dishonestly manipulating the masses. The human tendency of believing whatever satisfies our preconceptions, whether they are true or not, can be manipulated and, ultimately, weaponized – as we have seen recently here in the US.
The majority of people don’t fall for conspiracy theories but when misinformation offers simple explanations for what seem to be random and uncontrollable events, especially in times of great turmoil like this last year, it can give people comfort to believe in conspiracy. It’s appealing to simply give in to wishful thinking – to not have to confront reality. According to psychologists, those who are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories tend to suffer more from anxiety. Couple that with suffering problems in their relationships and a tendency to catastrophize problems in their life and this leads to taking “cognitive shortcuts.” This means following unconscious rules-of-thumb (generally accepted guidelines, policies or methods of doing something based on practice rather than facts) to make decisions faster and to determine what they should believe. And the more they hear something and are exposed to it, over and over again, the more likely they are to believe it. Teachers repeat themselves often in classrooms to solidify concepts in students’ minds. Conspiracy theorists can do the same, relying on the fact that the brain eventually mistakes familiarity for truth. And in this case, it is misinformation.
For some people, conspiracy beliefs are the best way to deal with the psychological threat posed by their own failures. And by casting blame on others, they feel that they can gain a sense of control over what’s happening to them. This is a human trait, as we evolved in small groups that competed with one another, training our brains to be wary of outsiders. Read this 2019 study (“Tribalism is Human Nature”) that found this kind of bias “is a natural and nearly ineradicable feature of human cognition” : https://cpb-us-e2.wpmucdn.com/…/10/Clark-et-al-2019.pdf
Once people believe in something, it can be almost impossible to dissuade them due to something called “belief echoes” or, an “obsessive, emotional response to information that can linger, even after we know it’s false” (Emily Thorson, Syracuse University). So, how do we combat this other pandemic we are facing – an “infodemic” of misinformation and fake news? A study called “Fake news game confers psychological resistance against online misinformation” found that once people were warned about common misinformation techniques, such as appealing to human emotions and/or expressing urgency, participants were more likely to identify unreliable information: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-019-0279-9
Another study, “Fighting misinformation on social media using crowdsourced judgments of news source quality” found that people trust mainstream news sources more than hyper-partisan or fake sites, which means social media platforms can help by prioritizing posts from credible sources: https://www.pnas.org/content/116/7/2521
Finally, we should be encouraging the idea that it is “rational to change one’s mind in the face of new information” (Joseph Vitriol, Stony Brook University). This is no easy feat, by any stretch of the imagination, but we have to start somewhere. Let today mark a new dawn, a new era that focuses on the importance of critical thinking, rational decision-making, and truth.