Study: people who can’t spot fake news tend to be bullshit artists who can’t tell fact from fiction

Some of the findings in this PsyPost article — “New research identifies a cognitive mechanism linked to reduced susceptibility to fake news” — feels like a “Well, duh” moment, but it is interesting nonetheless because it confirms through an actually study what many of us suspected: people who are susceptible to “fake news,” and who overestimate their expertise on topics on which they know little about, tend to not be very good problem solvers and have issues with logic in general.

The article notes how researchers at John Cabot University (Rome, Italy) and the University of Texas at Austin tried to gauge what traits made people susceptible to fake news, and what cognitive skills helped people to discern what is real information, and what information probably needs follow-up or is outright false.

The study included 61 right-handed, native American English speakers, who were 25.5 years old on average.

The researchers used Compound Remote Associate problems to assess insightfulness. To solve the problems, participants needed to connect three seemingly unrelated words in order to find a shared theme. This type of problem forces individuals to think creatively and openly while relying on insight. For example, the participants might see the words “crab,” “pine,” and “sauce.” The solution to the problem is “apple.”

“Tackling complicated problems requires continuous reframing and changing the initial representation of a problem to see it in a new light (i.e., when we have an insight). Solving a problem, specifically via insight, entails generating novel and original ideas by exploring unusual reasoning paths, a skill that is associated with the ability to filter out irrelevant distractions which might bring advantages when reasoning about information coming from an overcrowded environment like the internet.”

“We hypothesized that such mental exercise — that includes questioning the status quo, considering alternative information as well as filtering out distractions — impacts other information processing skills such as assessing news veracity.”

The participants were presented with 20 news items (consisting of a headline, a thumbnail image, and a preview text) and were asked if they were familiar with the article, how accurate they believed the article was, and if they would share the article on social media. Half of the news items were fake. In addition, the researchers administered a test of the propensity to believe pseudo-profound bullshit. The participants were shown randomly-generated meaningless statements such as “Infinity is a reflection of reality” and asked to rate their profundity.

The researchers found a positive relation between insightfulness and discernment. Those who scored higher on the measure of insightfulness tended to be better able to identify fake news and differentiate meaningful statements from pseudo-profound bullshit. Importantly, the findings held even after accounting for cognitive reflectiveness, meaning the tendency to think critically about a problem rather than “going with your gut.”

“This is the first one in a series of studies where we look at parallelisms between cognitive and social rigidity. We know that problem-solving is a form of cognitive flexibility and expresses an overall tendency of questioning the status quo and considering alternative information when reasoning. This shape of thinking is expressed not just when we solve problems but also when we assess information on the internet for example.”

“The relationship between being a good problem solver and detecting fake news we found may also be explained by the willingness to invest time and effort in going beyond the default information. Problem-solving capacity may engender a greater tendency to question the information in news by investigating its accuracy further or by considering alternative and non-obvious explanations.”

Greater insightfulness was also associated with reduced overclaiming. In other words, those who scored higher on the Compound Remote Associate problems were less likely to claim to be familiar with people, events, and topics that had been made-up by the researchers.

The findings were published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning.

Of course, all of this makes perfect sense. Just in my own family I can say that the people who are most hardcore Trump MAGA are the same people who never seemed interested in the nuances of the information they were taking in, when they took in any new information at all. These have always been relatives who, more or less, knew what they believed and refused to believe anything that deviated from their own opinions, no matter how strong the contrary evidence.

There are lots of pundits who say that America’s deepest political divides are as much about tribalism as they are about actual differences of opinion, and once you are in, say, a right-wing tribe, you tend of stick to those beliefs.

But what the 2022 mid-term elections taught us is that Republican votes outnumbered Democratic votes and the reason that Republican gains were kept to a minimum is because so many Republicans split tickets by voting for what passes for “mainstream” Republicans these days, while rejecting outright MAGA Republicans when they had a chance to vote in races containing both. Some Republicans even split their votes by choosing Democrats over MAGA Republicans.

I’d be willing to bet good money that those Republicans who split tickets in this way would be the same people in this study who showed a heightened ability to tell bullshit from fact.

It also points to the importance in education in not just telling students what to think, but also how to think more deeply.

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