One explanation for fake news flourishing on both sides of the political divide is partisanship. People seize whatever supports their tribe, cling to it for dear life, repeat it as if a mantra and await the inevitable win. While we clearly see “fake news” that supports the other team, our team’s news isn’t fake.
As we’re constantly informed, people on our team are, by definition, so very smart, so very astute, and their great superpower is their critical thinking skills, allowing them to know truth, to know better than all of humanity up to this very moment in history how to fix all of society’s intractable problems. Surely our team would never believe fake news like the other team.
Or are people just saying that, but really too lazy to think?
A recent study in the journal Cognition argues that cognitive laziness is an instructive explanation for why we embrace fake news and accept false information as factual. The researchers, Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand, studied the results of 800 participants who read and responded to 30 newspaper headlines.
Half of those headlines were factual and half were bunk. An equal number of headlines were consistent with Democratic priors, an equal number with Republican priors, and an equal number were party-neutral. Participants were asked to evaluate the accuracy of the headlines. They were also given two tests that measured their ability and willingness to engage in cognitive reflection.
The results of the study are startling. Partisanship was a only small factor determining a person’s ability to distinguish fake news from factual news. What mattered more was the person’s analytical ability.
One of my (and Thomas Alva Edison’s) favorite quotes comes from Sir Joshua Reynolds.
There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking.
This isn’t exactly a new notion, that thinking is hard and can cause needless sprains and headaches as we exercise a rarely used muscle. And even the best of us can’t think about everything.
We all rely on mental heuristics much of the time, and for good reason. It makes sense to take some shortcuts in thinking, at least in certain realms. Imagine having to think fully consciously about every decision you make each time you drive to work — from how much pressure to put on the gas pedal to the exact angle you need to turn your steering wheel.
Perhaps a better example can be found in assuming the guilt of someone against whom accusations are made and reported in all the newspapers because everyone says so. Why not take for granted that all those people who did the legwork are correct, since we can’t investigate it for ourselves and feel entitled to have an opinion anyway. Even if no trial has as yet happened, are we not entitled to believe in those we deem credible sources with certainty? Must we wait for process before deciding to jump onto the guilt train?
But people who believe fake news stay in a kind of cognitive autopilot. They aren’t interpreting using motivated reasoning when presented with facts and lies so much as failing to reflect in the first place. It’s not that they’re thinking but doing it in a motivated and thus distorting way; it’s that they’re not thinking at all.
Much as this strikes a nerve, it fails to explain why people tend to stick with one side of the divide over the other. Are partisanship and going through life as a cognitive miser mutually exclusive, or does the first dictate the side of fake news we embrace and the second explain why we can’t be bothered distinguishing between real news (or real arguments) and fake?
Amid all the analysis of how to counter disinformation in an age of lies and propaganda, we may be forced to first admit that the reason it works so well is because, cognitively, we’re just plain lazy. Maggie Selner recently wrote in these pages that we’re the antidote to fake news. She has a point: If we want fake news to have less sway, it’s up to us to start thinking.
Clearly, we have, and have always had, the capacity to employ critical thinking skills. Not the type the kids on social media pretend to have, but for realsies. Of course, that assumes one possesses such skills, and as the comments here conclusively prove, many do not. But as much as “think harder” has been a theme around these parts for quite a while, it’s not accomplished by saying so, but doing so to the extent one is willing and capable.
The second explanation, the cognitive laziness model, instead suggests we are listening to news and scanning headlines with the same level of attention we give to background noise.
This begs the question of what news we see and hear, whether it’s MSNBC or Fox News Channel, whether it’s Breitbart or the New York Times. After all, the foundation of what we mindlessly adopt depends on what we consume. It takes effort to check the sources of both teams, and if we’re too lazy to think in the first place, we’re similarly too lazy to tune in to differing perspectives before believing one side’s fake news over the other’s.
But there is a third explanation that incorporates both the cognitive laziness model and partisanship as an explanation for our willingness to believe fake news: feelings. As “empathy” has become one of our most valued virtues, we’ve been freed to believe that whatever we feel is entitled to as much, if not more, value than whatever we think.
The beauty of reliance on feelings is that it not only trumps all else, but it requires no further justification. When I explained that her “feelings” were illogical, that they ignored reason and experience, it was like talking to a wall. I was informed that I didn’t get it, much like the old adage that everyone is entitled to an opinion. Except it’s untrue; only those who have a basis for an opinion are entitled to one. The rest are just making noise.
Fake news is just a facile way to argue in support of our partisan feelings. Without it, we would have to think. That would be unfair to the cognitively marginalized and cause severe head trauma to many.