Fighting Fake News With Analytical Thinking

A November 2018 article by Gordon Waldman in Psychology Today questioned the theory that motivated reasoning is a major cause for people believing news stories that are untrue. Motivated reasoning is a form of reasoning in which people access, construct, and evaluate arguments in a biased fashion to arrive at or endorse their preferred conclusion. Loyalty to a political party or religious group can lead people to use motivated reasoning to ignore negative facts about their party or religion and seek information confirming the positive aspects of that party or religion. 

Fake news about gay conversion therapy saving Mike Pence’s marriage was read and believed by many then quickly debunked. So was a fake news story that Hillary Clinton got drunk and violent on election night. Why do people believe such outlandish stories? The Psychology Today article says new research finds biased thinking or motivated reasoning less a cause for believing fake news than the lack of analytical or deliberative thought.

In a set of new research studies, Gordon Pennycook, a psychologist at the University of Regina in Canada and David Rand, Associate Professor of Psychology, Economics, Cognitive Science and Management at Yale asked people to estimate the accuracy of social media-type news posts—some fake and some real. Participants also took a test of their inclination to think carefully about questions with an intuitive but false answer. (“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Answer: Not 10 cents but 5.) Those with higher scores on the analytic thinking test were better at judging a story’s accuracy and truth—regardless of whether it played to their political leaning.

Some ways you can quickly identify fake news include asking:

  1. Is the news source questionable? (Think The National Inquirer or U.K.’s Daily Mail)
  2. Do other stories from this source seem hard to believe?
  3. Are other media outlets you trust not carrying the same story?
  4. Is the story focused on a future disaster?
  5. Does the story lack a byline or is there only one author for every post on an entire website?
  6. Is a hard-to-believe claim reported to have happened in a far-flung place where news reports are difficult to verify?

Learn more about motivated reasoning and critical thinking.