A question for Daniel Williams, a Cambridge University philosopher who studies recent advances in psychology to understand how various forms of irrationality and bias are socially adapted.
What is misinformation doing to us?
yesince 2016, there has been a growing panic about the amount of misinformation that is affecting what people believe and do. But what I argue in a recent article, published in Economics and Philosophy, is that the panic around disinformation is wrong. The proportion of disinformation in the information diet of most people, in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom and in Northern and Western Europe, is quite negligible. (There is much less research when it comes to other countries in the world.) The minority of the population that tends to consume a lot of misinformation tends to be people who are already extremely partisan or opinionated on certain issues anyway, suggesting that the information isn’t really changing their behavior.
Before there is any sort of policy-level decision-making when it comes to things like censorship and prohibition, it’s really crucial to get the causal arrow right: Is it the case that people are misinformed by misinformation? , or are they looking for evidence and arguments to rationalize those beliefs? People tend to be quite vigilant when it comes to acquiring information from different sources; in any case, relying too much on their own intuitions than on information acquired from other people.
in his big book not born yesterday, Hugo Mercier reviews an enormous amount of evidence showing how sophisticated people are when it comes to evaluating the information they find. The first thing people do, not always consciously, is a kind of plausibility check. They also ask, “Can I hold this person accountable if he misinformed me? Do they have good arguments? Do I have good reason to believe they are a reliable source?” All these different signals that people use to weigh the reliability of information. But the problem is that they are only vigilant in that way when their goal is to acquire accurate beliefs.
When, on the other hand, they are engaged in motivated reasoning, when they are motivated to form beliefs because their ingroup favors it, say, then people tend to be much more receptive to information if it confirms and rationalizes their pet narratives. This is where the idea of a rationalizing market comes in. This is any kind of social system in which certain individuals or companies benefit financially or socially from the production and dissemination of information, not really to inform people but to rationalize what people are motivated to believe. There is a widespread demand for rationalizations of the narratives of different political, cultural and social groups. Certain ambitious media companies or individuals on social media will benefit from producing intellectual ammunition to justify these pet narratives.
To the extent that people are being “gullible,” it’s almost strategic gullibility, so they’re letting their guard down to accept information because it supports and rationalizes what they’re motivated to believe. It’s not that people search for the truth and then get fooled by propaganda and demagogues, though again, I don’t want to say that never happens. For the most part, it is that people have motivations to see the world in a particular way. And they are very receptive and actually look for evidence and arguments to support their preferred way of looking at the world.
Belonging to cross-community communities and also reducing your antipathy towards those who belong to different communities, this will actually weaken the motivation to engage in what the social scientist Dan Kahan called identity-protecting cognition, where, broadly speaking, it’s prioritizing their attachment. to a particular social group on the formation of precise beliefs. I don’t know how optimistic we should be that people actually follow that strategy because, especially in a country like the US, there is such intense political and cultural polarization. And one of the things that’s hard about motivated reasoning is that it never feels like you’re engaged in it when you are.
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