Lazy Does A Lot of Work

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.

20 thoughts on “Lazy Does A Lot of Work

  1. ctl

    then there’s ‘how much of your life are you willing to dedicate to finding the raw data necessary to formulate your own opinion, which would then be based on only the underlying facts’.
    and then there’s learning how to.

    believing fake news would also seem to be cumulative, and self-reinforcing

    my 0.00002¢, adjusted for inflation

    1. SHG Post author

      It would be impossible to require raw data for every conclusion we adopt, even if we were so inclined (which we’re not). But that’s why we embrace principled presumptions in approaching issues and recognize logical fallacies. If an argument is facially based on a fallacy, we reject it, not because it’s wrong but because we refuse to accept fallacious reasoning, whether it supports what we believe or not. Then there are principles, such as the presumption of innocence, which are hard when everyone says someone (say, Harvey Weinstein) is guilty, but the mechanism by which such matters are decided have yet to occur.

      Thinking isn’t only hard, but it’s unpopular.

      1. Elpey P.

        It used to be a tool of Satan. These days it leads to some very reactionary accusations such as being a white supremacist or a Russian agent.

        Just posing reasonable questions about settled dogma will do it, and do it loudly and quickly. The social pressures against thinking are strong.

        1. Elpey P.

          I should clarify that. “Posing questions about settled dogma” could easily be a bad faith defense for challenging established logical conclusions or trolling liberal values. I mean more specifically those narratives and stories we are expected to accept on faith and to exempt from rational debate if we are ‘good people,’ where merely raising questions results in non-responsive accusations.

  2. B. McLeod

    Standards of “journalism” are so non-existent today, most of the “news” is someone’s slanted tripe. It’s like a throwback to days of yore. As the peasants in the countryside, the only thing we really know is that the king and parliament are fighting about something.

  3. Casual Lurker

    “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?”

    It’s simpler than that. Ever talk to a rabid sports fan, or union member during negotiations? The verifiable facts are irrelevant. Both sides make statements and attributions that members know are not exactly true, but advance the agenda. They’re so convinced in the righteousness of their cause that they’re willing to overlook factually incorrect statements, and know full well the opposing side will use any concession of facts against their side. And winning, regardless of cost, is everything.

    There’s also the issue of keeping members of the group in lock-step. No one wants to be called out for failing to toe the party line. The respective media outlets merely provide the ammunition needed to shout down any questioning voices.

    “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…”

    I hear this all the time. They don’t want what you’re selling, and how dare you try to break their fantasy bubble!

    Ignoring the human capacity for compartmentalization, while intellectual laziness is a factor, it’s secondary to the fear of being an outcast in one’s own clan.

      1. Casual Lurker

        Almost… just one or two more… 😉
        Actually, SJ is the “breather”, as I take a break from the frustrating, ACA mandated, EMR reports/Rx system, and attempt to scarf down some breakfast.

          1. Casual Lurker

            As you may remember, until the Comptroller of the Currency resolves a long outstanding issue I have with PayPal, I’m prevented from using it. And frankly, I don’t expect it to be resolved during Darth Cheeto’s reign. (Obama was still in office when this started). Not that I presently have any use for PayPal, other than donating to worthy causes and starving lawyers.

            I know you will not accept a negotiable instrument by pony express.* However, the offer still stands.

            In the alternative, during a weekday, I can have my secretary administrative assistant, who likes to take long walks during her excessively long lunches, drop off an envelope stuffed with small denomination, unmarked bills, at your midtown office of record?

            *I don’t see the problem. After all, the folks in Albany don’t have a problem with it. Although, I don’t understand why the new ethics rules say I can give state senate members $10K, but only $5K to assembly members? (Not that I’m in a position to dole out that type of largess). It would seem to this non-lawyer to be a limit on my 1st Amendment free speech rights. [unwarranted leap in logic:] You wouldn’t want to contribute to the erosion of my free speech rights by refusing a negotiable instrument, would you?

            (I’m going to take an uneducated, non-lawyer guess, that your refusal has something to do with creating the appearance of an attorney-client relationship, where none exists?)

  4. Jessie Robertson

    I think it’s due in part at least to the lack of teaching critical thinking skills. I have always thought that at least one philosophy course should be required in high school and (as is the practice at my university) two or three philosophy courses at the undergraduate level at the bare minimum. As a philosophy major I have an inescapable urge to be skeptical toward everything I read. Yes, you read that correctly, because I study philosophy I am better and smarter than everyone! But seriously, if you do not teach people how to analyze arguments and get them in the habit of reading critically, they may still be able to analyze arguments but only if they decide to expend the effort.

    1. Jessie Robertson

      After looking at the study to which you referred, it seems that this is indeed the problem – they found that people who were by nature “more analytical thinkers” had more accurate judgments. So to reduce the problem of fake news, we would have to increase the proportion of analytical thinkers.

Comments are closed.