The Science Behind Why People Believe Fake News

We often tend to trust a statement or an argument simply because it conforms to our already-held beliefs, regardless of the strength or weaknesses behind its rationale and the veracity of its claims.


Why don’t facts change our minds? Credit: Pixabay

One of the most blatant instances of fake news in recent times was the elaborate Zee News video on new notes being equipped with GPS chips. The details mentioned in the video were so absurd that it looked more like a deliberately concocted misleading news reportage rather than something simply related to unfortunate misreporting. There have been other instances of Zee News coming under the scanner for carrying fake news, most notoriously with respect to the doctored ‘JNU video.’

Interestingly, while one would expect a major national media channel to lose its support base and popularity for carrying such misleading news stories, there are few signs of that. Its viewers continue to watch and for the most part believe in what the channel says, telling us something crucial about human nature – when it comes to trust, for many of us ‘facts’ and logical reasoning are hardly the primary concern. We often tend to trust a statement or an argument simply because it conforms to our already-held beliefs or because it doesn’t involve much analytical thinking. This, regardless of the strength/weaknesses behind its rationale and the veracity of its claims.

The magazine New Yorker recently carried an article titled ‘Why facts don’t change our minds’ on new discoveries about the human mind that show the limitations of reason. The writer, Elizabeth Kolbert, mentions three books that talk about what could be called defects in the human reasoning machine. The arguments in one of those books, the upcoming The Enigma of Reason, are quite radical and thought-provoking. Its authors Hugo Mercier (French National Center for Scientific Research) and Dan Sperber (Central European University) had published, way back in 2011, an article titled ‘Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory,’ which broadly talks about the same arguments as the book. Let us look at some of the key claims they made there.

Why do humans possess the faculty of reasoning?

We have always assumed that humans perform reasoning primarily with the aim of producing new, useful knowledge from available information and to arrive at better decisions. This assumed function – the ‘classical theory of reasoning’ – needs a rethinking, according to Mercier and Sperber. According to them, it was the necessity of effective communication with fellow humans that led to the evolution of reasoning as a cognitive ability. “Reasoning has evolved and persisted because it makes human communication [not decision-making or knowledge-production] more effective and advantageous”.

Communication ideally involves give and take of useful information, but there always is a possibility of someone becoming a victim of misinformation. Hence humans exercise what the authors call ‘epistemic vigilance’. For example, when the new information we receive does not fit well with our old information and beliefs, we have to choose between rejecting the old beliefs and rejecting the new information. Epistemic vigilance often makes us go for the latter, simpler option.

The argumentative theory of reasoning

Similarly, someone wanting to transmit new information has to deal with the possibility of the information being thus rejected by the recipient. Hence they try to convince the recipient in a number of ways. This frequently includes coupling the information with some background premises the recipient already believes, and then showing that, once these premises are accepted, it would be much easier to accept the new information than to reject it. To make one’s communication effective, the carrier of information thus crafts arguments for their claims, instead of relying on a plain transmission of ‘dry data’. It is the evaluation of such arguments, and not exactly the information itself, that constitutes the rationale behind our trusting or doubting any claims.

That in short is the ‘argumentative theory of reasoning’, according to which reasoning primarily has a social, not individual, function, “to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade”. An interesting consequence of this natural development is its relative ineffectiveness in producing reliable knowledge or in arriving at optimal decisions. The authors say that in decision-making, for example, the main function of (argumentative) reasoning thus becomes the production of arguments to convince others, rather than to find the best decision.

To sum up, Mercier and Sperber claim that our faculty of reasoning is perfect for making, and accepting or rejecting, argumentive claims. They say this is its primary evolutionary function. But our reasoning faculty is imperfect – though not totally unproductive – when it comes to the finer tasks of arriving at rational decisions or producing reliable new knowledge. Skilled arguers, they say, “are not after the truth” but (simply) after arguments supporting whatever they believe to be true, or want the recipient to believe to be true.

This partly explains why Zee News easily got away with carrying a false story about the new 2,000 rupee notes having GPS chips in them. For their ‘claim’ that demonetisation is a ‘masterstroke’, they simply did the job of providing arguments that were easier for most people to accept, regardless of how factually-based those were. If an argument is forceful (“demonetisation will prevent corruption like no other policy before”) and coupled with commonly-accepted premises (“the nation needs radical policies to wipe out corruption”), then we can conclude from Mercier and Sperber’s theory that people were evolutionarily more inclined to simply accept it without going into further details (for example, how exactly does one equip currency notes with GPS?)

Can it help us create a better world?

Mercier spells out (in another piece) some of the potential applications of their theory:

“Based on the dominant [classical] view, people have been trying for many years to reform reasoning: to teach critical thinking, to rid us of our biases… This approach has not been very successful. According to our theory [the argumentative theory of reasoning] this is not surprising, as people have been trying to reform something that works perfectly well – as if they had decided that hands were made for walking and that everybody should be taught that. Instead, we claim that reasoning does well what it is supposed to do – arguing – and that it produces good results in appropriate – argumentative – contexts. So, instead of trying to change the way people reason, interventions based on the environment – institutional in particular – are much more likely to succeed. If we can increase people’s exposition to arguments, if we manage to make them argue more with people who disagree with them, then reasoning should produce very good results without having had to be reformed.”

In India for now, where any enlightened individual who champions peaceful arguments and discourse is made to suffer bullying and physical violence, we perhaps can’t expect any sort of ‘cognitive revolution’ on these lines for some time at least. But for those who do wish to make the nation a more peaceful place, this is great food for thought.

Kiran Kumbhar is a physician and health policy graduate engaged in public health awareness through writing.