Belief systems that people develop early in life to help protect against the anxiety and stress of an uncertain world may help explain why some individuals fall victim to ‘fake news’, scientists say.
The key to people’s accepting fake news as true, despite evidence to the contrary, is a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, or the tendency for people to seek and accept information that confirms their existing beliefs while rejecting or ignoring that which contradicts those beliefs, researchers said.
Many of these beliefs and biases are formed early in life when children begin to distinguish between fantasy and reality, according to Eve Whitmore, a developmental psychologist with Western Reserve Psychological Associates in the US.
“At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” said Mark Whitmore, an assistant professor at Kent State University in the US.
“In fact, one could say the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs,” said Whitmore.
Some of these beliefs can be based in fantasy, and that can lead to what ‘nonsensical thinking’ said Eve Whitmore.
“From the beginning, parents reinforce to their children the skill of pretending in order to cope with the realities inherent in culture and society,” she said.
In adolescence, people develop critical thinking skills and some begin to question what they were taught as children, perhaps religious beliefs or even the belief that authority figures such as parents or government leaders are always right.
However, going against one’s parents’ beliefs can cause friction within the family, and, despite evidence to the contrary, some are willing to rationalise those false beliefs in order to avoid upsetting their parents.
As people reach adulthood, many of these false beliefs and biases formed as children, instead of being given a good critical examination, are simply accepted and continue to influence how a person perceives his or her world, according to Mark Whitmore.
The rise of the internet and social media has only compounded the problem of fake news, upending the traditional news model where an individual receives information from a small number of outlets, he said.
“In today’s media environment, the channels are multiple, and the messages are often simultaneous and contradictory,” he said.
“The receiver is often faced with paradoxical and seemingly absurd messages. It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality,” he said.