People with greater cognitive reflectiveness tend to be better at distinguishing disinformation from real information, according to new research. However, in Hungary, voters who oppose the government used their thinking skills to question false information that was both concordant and discordant with their political views, while voters who support the government were far less likely to question fake news. The new findings appear in Scientific Reports.
The dissemination of fake news can have harmful consequences on individuals and society. It can lead to the spread of misinformation, create confusion and division, and even influence people’s behavior and decisions.
“Our interest in this topic originates in a contradiction: Hungary was invaded by Russia/the Soviet Union several times over the course of its history, and the latest occupation took place between 1944-1991, so many Hungarian adults had personal experiences related to the occupation,” explained study author Laura Faragó, an assistant psychology professor at Eötvös Loránd University.
“Nevertheless, due to the systematic disinformation campaigns in the mainstream media, many Hungarians have a pro-Russian leaning, and they even blame Ukrainians for the war initiated by Russia, which is irrational concerning their own personal historical experiences. Therefore, we thought that examining susceptibility to disinformation is at utmost importance in this country.”
The researchers sought to replicate a U.S. study regarding the psychological predictors of susceptibility to fake news. They used a Hungarian polling company to recruit a sample of 991 participants, who completed assessments of fake news discernment, cognitive reflectiveness, and digital media literacy. They also filled out questionnaires regarding their demographic information.
To assess fake news discernment, the researchers presented 15 fake and 15 real news headlines to participants in the format of a Facebook post. Participants were asked whether they had seen the story before, how accurate they believed the claim to be, and whether they would consider sharing it online. The headlines were taken from fact-checking sites and mainstream news sources, and contained a mix of politically-charged (pro-government) and politically-neutral content.
Those who scored higher on the test of cognitive reflectiveness were more likely to recognize fake information. The test contained questions that tend to generate quick and intuitive — but incorrect — answers. In other words, those who score high on the test tend to reflect and deliberate on the problem rather than “going with their gut.”
Additionally, greater digital media literacy was positively related to distinguishing real from fake news. Participants were considered to have greater digital media literacy if they disagreed with statements such as “I have trouble finding things that I’ve saved on my computer” and “I rely on family members to introduce me to new technology.”
“Our study found that analytic thinking and digital literacy skills lead to better recognition of disinformation,” Faragó told PsyPost. “Nevertheless, analytic thinking interacted with partisanship: the impact of analytic thinking on fake news discernment was more significant for opposition voters compared to supporters of the government. However, the visibility of news sources (mainstream media vs fake news sites) did not have an impact on individuals’ ability to recognize fake news, which contradicted our expectations.”
When it came to politically-neutral headlines, cognitive reflectiveness was a stronger predictor of fake news discernment than partisanship. But when it came to politically-charged headlines, partisanship was a stronger predictor of fake news discernment than cognitive reflectiveness. The researchers also found that participants were better at distinguishing real from fake news if the news content was consistent with their political orientation.
When examining the interaction between partisanship and cognitive reflectiveness, Faragó and her colleagues found that those who opposed Hungary’s conservative government used their analytic capacities more to question fake news, while pro-government participants struggled to discern real news from fake news.
“Our study is a replication of an American study (the original study was conducted by Pennycook and Rand in 2019),” Faragó said. “Pennycook and Rand compared supporters of Clinton and Trump in terms of media truth discernment.”
“According to their study, although Clinton supporters recognized misinformation significantly better than Trump supporters, even Trump supporters also generally considered real news to be more credible than fake news (media truth discernment scores were positive for all types of misinformation). Despite this, in Hungary, average media truth discernment scores of government supporters were negative, meaning that they consider fake news to be more accurate than real news. This is frightening.”
Fake news is a rapidly evolving phenomenon, and studying it can help researchers understand how technology is changing the way we consume and share information, and how this can impact our perception of reality and our decision-making processes.
“The real question that we try to respond to in further research is how much we can attribute this asymmetry in fake news acceptance between supporters of the government vs. the opposition to the overexposure to disinformation in the public domain, and how much to the ideological predisposition of the voters (e.g., being liberal vs. conservative),” Faragó said. “Future studies are needed to answer this question.”
The study, “Hungarian, lazy, and biased: the role of analytic thinking and partisanship in fake news discernment on a Hungarian representative sample“, was authored by Laura Faragó, Péter Krekó, and Gábor Orosz.