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Why we fall for misinformation so easily

Aditya Shukla, Psychologist, Cognition Today

White Frame Corner

Explore 11 psychological reasons

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Illusory truth effect

When misinformation is repeated for a long time, it gets easier to process it. That ease tricks the brain into thinking it is familiar and correct.

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Psychological comfort

Misinformation, typically found in pseudoscience and spiritual areas, tends to comfort people with hope when dealing with extreme uncertainty and ambiguity.

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Not psychologically inoculated

People tend to remember what they learn first. If they don't learn the facts first, they don't get inoculated against future misinformation. Basic facts work like a vaccine for misinformation.

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Confirmation bias

With enough versions of facts and narratives available, people tend to choose only the ones that support their beliefs. They ignore the rest.

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Lack of context

Some facts and scientific ideas are difficult to grasp without foundational knowledge and context. In such cases, it is easy to reject the facts in favor of a simpler idea, even though it is wrong.

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A better story

Stories persuade people better than facts. If misinformation tells a more compelling story than science does, misinformation wins.

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To understand complex phenomena, we need the appropriate vocabulary and mental tools to understand it. These tools can be math, language, metaphors, diagrams, etc. Without those, people are in hypo-cognition (lacking mental tools), so they absorb misinformation that fits their tools.

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System 1 thinking

System 1 thinking is based on feelings and quick judgments. System 2 is the opposite—slow and effortful. Misinformation quickly latches to system 1 thinking, especially when we are busy and stressed.

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Face validity

Some misinformation appears correct because it has all the right words, feels trustworthy, is endorsed by people with expertise, etc. So if misinformation is padded with details like "Dr. Jones said..., scientists have found..., published in XYZ journal," we think it is credible.

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Gell-mann amnesia effect

We routinely dismiss other people's analyses on topics we are experts in, but if the same people give an equally in-depth analysis of a topic we aren't experts in, we tend to accept it, even with the author's flawed logic. We often forget that we had dismissed their logic in one area, yet accepted it in another.

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We have a need to make sense of the world, even if it doesn't fit science. If misinformation makes sense of our circumstances, we tend to commit to that misinformation to clarify the world. Political conspiracy or narrative building often achieves sense-making in a demographic.