Furthermore, these individuals suffered more anxiety and engaged in more cognitive biases. Study authors Alex Escola-Gascon and colleagues recommend tackling the Barnum Effect and teaching critical thinking skills to effectively protect against vulnerability to fake news.
Challenges in critical thinking that lead to conspiracy or pseudoscientific beliefs are not new. However, access to fanciful tales marketed as fact is unprecedented and has far-reaching consequences. Public health organizations and governments around the world struggle because individuals cannot determine what information is reliable or accurate. Escola-Gascon and colleagues recognized the need to identify who might be vulnerable to fake news and use the findings to recommend therapeutic interventions.
The study recruited 1,452 participants over the age of 21, with just under half of the group identifying as female (49%). Participants were also asked about the number of daily hours they spend on the internet. In addition, participants did not have clinical diagnoses of psychiatric conditions.
Subjects were then assessed using various tests, including the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, Positive and Negative Affect Scale, and Multivariable Multiaxial Suggestibility Inventory. These served to identify personality traits that could identify those vulnerable to fake news and those who were not.
To determine who was most vulnerable to fake news, participants took the COVID-19 fake news test. This test presented participants with 18 statements; six were false, six were true, and the final six did not have enough information to prove it true or false.
Each statement can be answered with a “true”, “false” or “unclear” answer. Those who were successful on this test, getting nine or more hits, were considered part of the group not vulnerable to fake news; the remaining participants were pooled for statistical analysis of their responses on the personality inventories.
The findings from this effort were complex but significant. Escola-Gascon and colleagues state, “The results supported the conclusion that failure to correctly detect fake news is related to increased psychopathological risks in trait anxiety, state anxiety, negative affect, histrionics, schizotypy, paranoia, narcissism, simulations. (Barnum effect), suggestibility, and Thrill Seeking.” In simpler terms, several interconnected personality traits result in greater vulnerability to fake news.
From this finding, the research team recommended interventions that they think might work individually to help identify fake news and the subsequent negative psychological consequences.
The first is to teach individuals to avoid the Barnum Effect, which refers to the phenomenon in which individuals believe that a generic statement or description applies specifically to them even though it may apply to many people. This is usually seen in the context of fake personality tests and psychic readings. The Barnum Effect can be used to manipulate public health behaviors and political opinions.
The second recommendation is to teach people to think critically along with their intuition. Believers in fake news or pseudoscience are often guided by intuition. Intuitive thinking cannot be ignored or belittled in teaching critical analysis. The research team recommends that critical thinking be marketed and taught as a partner to intuition.
There are some recognized limitations to the study. The decision to group those vulnerable to fake news based on a score below 9 on the COVID-19 fake news test was not based on empirical research, it may be that scores higher or lower than 9 represent the most vulnerable. Furthermore, the sample only consisted of Spanish individuals; Confounding cultural variables may challenge study generalizability.
The research team does not believe that these limitations detract from the relevance of their study. Escola-Gascon and colleagues conclude: “The results of this research are not experimental, but contribute to the generation of new hypotheses and offer practical recommendations for the psychiatric and/or psychological clinic.”
The study “Who falls in love with fake news? Evidence from Psychological and Clinical Profiling of Fake News Consumers,” is written by Alex Escola-Gascon, Neil Dagnall, Andrew Denovan, Kenneth Drinkwater, and Miriam Diez-Bosch.