The strange psychology behind when and why we ignore the facts.
It’s probably fair to say that we live in an era in which fact-checking would seem to be of paramount importance. Especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but even before that, flat-out incorrect information spreads like fire throughout the internet and social media. In recent months, however, we’ve heard a lot about how fact-checking “doesn’t work.”
So if fact-checking doesn’t work, should we stop spending so much time doing it? Not so fast. Whether or not fact-checking works in particular instances is actually quite nuanced. So when and how does fact-checking work? And what are the psychological drivers that lead people to resist it?
For starters, it’s important to state one thing: fact-checking is still important, even if it doesn’t work in every instance. Fact-checking is both often very effective and necessary. Political fact-checking is also a phenomenon that supports democracy. Fact-checking has grown tremendously in the past 10 to 15 years, in part because there is a real appetite for it and people who depend upon it. Indeed, for the vast majority of people, fact-checking will work the majority of the time on the majority of topics.
There is a crucial caveat to this though—very vocal people on contested political issues (even ones that have clear factual answers like climate change) are not likely to respond to fact-checking on those issues. What’s more, because they are so vocal, it can seem like there are more of them than there actually are. In these cases, human cognition does not filter out emotions before looking at information and so even fact-checks may not be particularly persuasive on their own.
But that still doesn’t mean fact-checks serve no purpose in these cases, because they may still be effective as part of a multi-faceted intervention. People are most resistant when something comes up that challenges their world view, and since there isn’t a large study of the effects of fact-checking on everyone in the world, it’s hard to say that it “doesn’t work” even if we still hear a lot of misinformation circulating.
There are still things we can do to make fact-checking more effective. One is to share sources of disagreement that generally agree with people’s worldview overall (e.g. getting a Republican to refute an idea to a Republican rather than a Democrat). It also seems that graphical information, in the form of charts and other data visualization techniques, can be helpful.
Importantly, providing an alternative narrative rather than just a refutation on its own can be particularly salient. There are not a ton of data on the efficacy of real-time fact checks but it’s reasonable to think they’re still useful—after all, repeating misinformation can make it stronger so intervening before too much of that happens might help to reduce it.
Other effective methods include: aiming for the middle rather than people at the extremes, who are less likely to be swayed; and fact-checking that says things like “if you believe this, you are right” is more likely to be effective because people love to be told they are right—so including that actual phrasing can be motivating.
There are major challenges to truth and facts in our world right now. But just because we are faced with resistance to facts does not mean we should essentially abandon them altogether. Better understanding the psychology that makes people cling to incorrect notions can help us build more effective multi-faceted strategies that include an understanding and appreciation of the importance of facts.