Can You ‘Unlearn’ Fake News?

Fake news is all over the news.  We recently spoke with Dr. De keersmaeker, a leading researcher on the topic, to gain greater insight into his article: ‘Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions.

What motivated this research?

‘Fake news’ receives a lot of attention in the media. Many people are concerned about it, and many organizations try to identify fake news. However, we examined whether the impact of these fake news articles could be undone by pointing out that the information was incorrect (and our study suggests this is not the case)

What did you want to understand?

We want to examine whether people adjust their attitudes after they learn that crucial information on which their initial evaluation was based is incorrect, and to what extent cognitive ability influences this correction.

How did you study it?

We conducted an experiment wherein participants were randomly assigned to either the experimental or control condition. In the experimental condition, participants were

presented with a picture and description of a young women, In this description, general information about the target person was provided, such as that she is married and works as a nurse in a hospital. At the end of the description, it reads that ‘Nathalie was arrested for stealing drugs from the hospital; she has been stealing drugs for 2 years and selling them on the street in order to buy designer clothes’. After completing control questions, participants were asked to evaluate Nathalie on several dimensions, and to complete a measure of cognitive ability. Next, participants saw an explicit message on their screen stating that the information regarding the stealing and dealing of drugs was not true. Subsequently, participants were again presented with the picture and description of Nathalie, showing exactly the same information as before, but with the incorrect piece of information in a strikethrough typography. Then participants were asked to evaluate Nathalie again, knowing that she was not arrested and did not steal and sell drugs.

In the control condition, participants were presented with the same photo and description as in the experimental condition, but without the final paragraph about the arrest for stealing and dealing of drugs.

What was your main finding?

We examined whether people adjust their attitudes after they learn that crucial information on which their initial evaluation was based is incorrect, and to what extent cognitive ability influences this correction. We found that, when individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability learnt that their attitudes towards a target person were partly based on negative information that was incorrect, they did adjust their evaluation about the target person, but to a lesser degree than individuals with higher levels of cognitive ability. Importantly, the adjusted attitudes of individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability were still more negative compared to the evaluations of their counterparts who were never exposed to the incorrect negative information. Contrary, individuals with higher levels of cognitive ability made more appropriate attitude adjustments. In particular, after learning that the negative information was false, they adopted attitudes that were similar to those who had not received false information.

Why is the research important?

I think this research is important because it suggests that the impact of fake news cannot simply be undone for individuals low in cognitive ability by pointing out that the information was incorrect.

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