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Psychological Vaccine Against Fake News

last modified Apr 27, 2017 10:50 PM

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In collaboration with our partners at Yale and George Mason University in the United States, the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab recently published a study in which we develop a "psychological vaccine" against misinformation. We were very pleased that the research received worldwide coverage from over 100 media and news outlets around the globe, including the BBC, the LA Times, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. For radio interviews, we recommend our appearance on NPR's Science Friday.

In the paper, we suggest that false memes and misinformation can spread and replicate from one mind to another much like a contagion. Specifically, our research builds on and extends the social-psychological theory of attitudinal inoculation. Inoculation draws on a medical analogy, where just as administering a weakened dose of a virus (the vaccine) triggers antibodies in the immune system and as a result, can offer resistance against future infection, the same can be achieved with information and attitudes.

In the experiment, we found that the presence of "sticky" misinformation (about climate change) neutralized the influence of simple facts almost entirely. Yet, by forewarning and exposing subjects to a weakened version of the falsehood and by preemptively debunking this falsehood with even stickier "facts" (the vaccine), the effect of scientific evidence on public attitudes about climate change was partially preserved, varying as a function of how detailed the inoculation was. Importantly, we also found that the "vaccine" even had some retroactive benefits among those ideologically predisposed to be skeptical about the issue of climate change.

The "facts" in this experiment were based on the robust finding that over 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening. The misinformation was framed around a real website which hosts a petition from the late 1990's. This petition formed the basis of one of the most frequently shared "fake news" story on climate change in 2016 misinforming the public that thousands of scientists have declared that "climate change is a hoax". 

Our study adds to a growing body of psychological research on how people process conflicting informational cues, how highlighting consensus can neutralize conflict, and how evidence can be communicated in a so-called "post-truth" society.