People fall for fake news stories because of thought processes developed as a child to protect against anxiety in an uncertain world, say psychologists.
Psychology can offer people evidence-based strategies to defend against fake news, according to experts at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.
Keeping an open mind and developing critical thinking skills is the key to overcoming the phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”, which psychologists believe is at the root of the problem.
It is a bias in the way people understand the world in which they tend to seek and accept information which confirms their existing beliefs, while rejecting information that contradicts those beliefs.
The core beliefs and biases that people seek to confirm are formed early in life, when children begin to distinguish fantasy and reality, according to developmental psychologist Dr Eve Whitmore.
Dr Whitmore explained: “From the beginning, parents reinforce to their children the skill of pretending in order to cope with the realities inherent in culture and society.
“Children’s learning about make-believe and mastery of it becomes the basis for more complex forms of self-deception and illusion into adulthood.”
Psychologists believe the key to avoiding confirmation bias is reducing the anxieties about the world which make the fake news stories so appealing.
Professor Mark Whitmore said: “One positive defence strategy is humour. Watching late night comedy or political satire, while not actually altering or changing the source of the stressor, can help reduce the stress and anxiety associated with it.
“Another is sublimation, where you channel your negative feelings into something positive, such as running for office, marching in a protest or volunteering for a social cause.”
Critical thinking is also a method of defence against fake news, the psychologists said.
“Developing a greater degree of scepticism in children, by encouraging them to ask why and to question, diminishes confirmation bias,” Mark Whitmore said.
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“In today’s media environment, the channels are multiple, and the messages are often simultaneous and contradictory,” he added.
“The receiver is often faced with paradoxical and seemingly absurd messages. It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality.”