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The Key Psychological Factors That Drive Belief in Rumors and Misinformation

Misbar's Editorial Team Misbar's Editorial Team
28th May 2024
The Key Psychological Factors That Drive Belief in Rumors and Misinformation

In an era of rapid information spread, grasping the psychological factors that render individuals more susceptible to believing and relying on misinformation for forming perceptions, ideas, and decisions has become progressively crucial.

Here are some of the most significant psychological factors that increase the likelihood of individuals believing rumors and misinformation:

Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases are defined as systematic patterns of thinking that deviate from rational norms of judgment, leading to distorted cognition and often resulting in irrational conclusions or beliefs. These biases can make individuals more susceptible to believing misinformation. Some of the key biases include:

  • Confirmation Bias: One of the most prominent cognitive biases, it arises from individuals' preference for information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and their tendency to ignore evidence that contradicts them. This bias is particularly evident when individuals encounter misinformation that aligns with their opinions, leading them to accept it as fact.
  • Anchoring bias: Anchoring occurs when individuals heavily rely on the first piece of information they receive when making decisions. If this initial information is incorrect, it can shape their subsequent perceptions and beliefs.
  • Availability Heuristic: The availability heuristic leads individuals to overestimate the importance of information that is readily available to them. For instance, controversial news stories (available) can make certain events seem more common than they actually are, influencing general perceptions and beliefs.

Emotional Impact (Emotional Response to News)

Emotional impact plays a pivotal role in information processing and decision-making. Misinformation purveyors frequently leverage emotional responses from audiences to gain momentum and disseminate misleading content through emotional traction. This emotional impact manifests in the following ways:

Fear and Anxiety

Fear and anxiety can heighten individuals' receptivity to misinformation, particularly if it offers a simple explanation that alleviates their concerns. For instance, amid health crises, misinformation regarding treatments or preventive measures can swiftly spread because it provides a reassuring sense of control, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Anger and Resentment

Misinformation that provokes anger or resentment can spread more rapidly than other types of information because these emotions drive individuals to share the information as a form of social signaling. Social signaling encompasses facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and gestures (in social media platforms, this includes expressive emojis, emotional reactions, comments, and memes). These signals play a crucial role in understanding the emotions, intentions, and social attitudes of others. This phenomenon is particularly evident on social media platforms, where content that incites anger or outrage often garners more engagement.

Social Impacts

Human beings are inherently social creatures who both influence and are influenced by their social environment. An individual's beliefs and behaviors significantly impact those around them, and conversely, they are affected by the beliefs and behaviors of others. This occurs through several factors, the most prominent of which include:

Informational Social Influence (Compliance With the Collective Mind)

This refers to the tendency to conform to the actions and thoughts of others under the assumption that these actions and thoughts reflect the correct behavior. For instance, when individuals see their peers sharing or endorsing certain information, they are inclined to believe and disseminate it.

Authority Influence in Spreading Misinformation

In general, individuals tend to believe information coming from authoritative figures (political, military, or educational) or from experts and academics, even if the information is incorrect. This tendency can be particularly dangerous when the authoritative figure has significant influence or commands a large following.

Information Overload and Cognitive Burden

The vast amount of information available on social media platforms today can lead individuals to feel overwhelmed, leading to heightened cognitive strain and the depletion of their cognitive resources. Consequently, this can induce mental stress, diminishing an individual's capacity to critically evaluate or verify the accuracy of information.

Information Overload

When faced with an overwhelming amount of information, individuals may rely on cognitive shortcuts to interpret it, increasing the likelihood of believing misinformation. For example, they might prioritize information from familiar sources that provide concise summaries without verifying its accuracy.

Cognitive Overload

High cognitive overload usually occurs when the cognitive demands of a task exceed an individual’s cognitive capacity, which can impede judgment and decision-making. In such cases, individuals become more susceptible to accepting misinformation that requires less cognitive effort to process.

Identity and Group Affiliation

Personal identity and group affiliation can significantly influence the acceptance and spread of misinformation through:

In-group Favoritism: Individuals tend to favor information that supports the group they belong to, whether it’s a political party, religious group, or ethnic community. This can lead to the acceptance of misinformation that aligns with the group’s beliefs or values.

Identity Protection

Individuals may reject information that threatens their identity or core beliefs. This phenomenon, known as "identity-protective cognition," can lead individuals to dismiss accurate information and accept misinformation that feels safer or more supportive of their identity.

How Can We Reduce the Likelihood of Individuals Believing Misinformation?

Understanding the psychological factors that render individuals vulnerable to believing misinformation is crucial for addressing this issue. Here are some strategies to help individuals avoid falling prey to false or misleading news:

1. Critical Thinking Education

Learning critical thinking skills can help individuals better evaluate the credibility of information and resist cognitive biases. This includes prompting individuals to ask questions such as, How did the event occur? When did it happen? Why did it happen? In what context? And who published this information?

2. Media Literacy Education

Media literacy education equips individuals with the skills necessary to identify misinformation and comprehend the motives behind it. This involves teaching people how to verify sources, understand the context of news stories, and recognize common tactics used to disseminate false information.

3. Emotion Control and Regulation

Considering the pivotal role of emotional impulses in decision-making and perception formation, regulating and controlling emotions can diminish their influence on individuals' perspectives. Emotions can be managed through meditation techniques, breathing exercises, stress management practices, and educating individuals about emotional manipulation tactics used by purveyors of false and misleading information to enhance dissemination.

4. Encouraging Healthy Skepticism

Promoting individuals' level of healthy skepticism and encouraging them to question the information they encounter can lessen the likelihood of accepting misinformation. This involves fostering a culture of fact-checking before sharing information, supported by platforms dedicated to news verification.

5. Community Interaction and Engagement

The formation of strong, informed communities that encourage a culture of open dialogue and critical discussion is a crucial factor in combating the spread of misinformation. When individuals feel actively engaged in their community, they are less susceptible to relying on misinformation as a source of security or validation.

Based on the above, it is evident that the tendency to believe misinformation is a multifaceted issue shaped by various psychological factors, including cognitive biases, emotional responses, social influences, and information overload, as well as identity protection. Understanding these elements enables us to devise more effective strategies for combating misinformation and cultivating a society that is better informed and more discerning. Teaching individuals about these psychological mechanisms, improving media literacy, and promoting a culture of critical thinking and skepticism are essential steps toward reducing the propensity to believe false and misleading information.

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