- We often gravitate toward information that supports our beliefs and ignore data that challenges our views.
- Simply knowing that information disseminators play on emotions to capture our attention can help us decipher fact from fiction.
Gone are the days when we simply read our local paper or watched one nightly news program after dinner. We’re flooded by information from the internet, social media and cable TV. Whom can we trust? How do we know if the news we’re digesting, and redistributing, is true? It turns out that what we believe and don’t believe is based on a combination of emotion, logic and memory — and that complex cocktail is all housed in our brains. This can be dangerous, leading us down a path of believing information that isn’t true.
Research has found that people usually gravitate toward news that supports their beliefs and ignore information that challenges their views. This is known as “confirmation bias,” according to Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist and author of The Influential Mind. It’s extremely difficult to open someone to a new idea. Data is not enough; “it must be communicated in a way that taps into people’s emotions, needs and desires,” Sharot says.
This helps explain how folks can believe a seemingly questionable story. If it generates an emotional response, stoking fear or reinforcing beliefs, we bite. Advertising experts such as Troy King have known this for years. “People buy into something because of an emotional connection,” King says. “Logic has little to do with it.”
Even so, most Americans feel made-up news is hazardous. Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults say fabricated news stories cause confusion about issues and events, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
Thankfully, not everyone falls for shady stories. More than 4 out of 5 adults feel at least somewhat confident they can detect bogus news, the Pew study found. However, the next generation of media consumers appears less discerning. A study by Stanford researchers showed that more than 80 percent of middle schoolers believed that “sponsored content” was real. Researchers said they were “shocked” by how many students, at various levels including college, failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of information.
There are ways to counter the spread of misinformation and learn to discern the truth. Simply understanding that news disseminators play on our fears can help us manage our response to sensational stories, leading us to look at information critically rather than emotionally, says Sharot, the neuroscientist.
If you’re not sure whether a story is real, feed it through a debunking site such as factcheck.org. About 16 percent of Americans in the Pew survey said they had unintentionally shared a story they later realized was false.
Also, try to gather news from multiple sources. Include sources you might not traditionally follow, like the BBC, for a global perspective on America’s actions. This can help us understand how different people, and countries, view the same event.
Sometimes the news, true or fabricated, makes us feel helpless. The best way to combat fear is to take control. Get involved: Volunteer, help a neighbor, share a kind word. You can help make the world a better place — in ways big and small. And with so much negativity flying around, this is powerful and needed. —Rachel Noble
Rachel Noble is a therapist and director of women's behavioral health for the Inova health system in Northern Virginia.