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Lazy thinking, not political bias, drives fake news

Conventional wisdom holds that readers fall for fake news when it aligns with their political beliefs, no matter how outrageous the story. But a new study shows that it’s really just a lack of analytic thinking.

The study asked 3,446 participants to rate the accuracy of headlines from actual news stories from Facebook. The results were surprising.

“Our study suggests that falling for fake news is a symptom of cognitive laziness rather than motivated reasoning or self-deception,” said MIT Sloan associate professor David Rand, who authored the study with the University of Regina’s Gordon Pennycook. “That is, contrary to popular belief, it is not the case that people are thinking too much about the wrong things. Rather, a little thinking might go a long way to fix the problem of fake news.” 

People who engage in more analytic thinking, as measured by the Cognitive Reflection Test, are better at discerning true from false — regardless of identified motivations or political biases. In fact, the study found readers were actually better at distinguishing fake and real news when the content fit with their political views.

These results have major implications for the continued fight against fake news. “One of the reasons this study is so important is that it suggests a whole new set of solutions,” Rand said. 

If partisan bias and motivated reasoning were fully to blame for the spread of fake news, stopping it would mean working to decrease partisanship and its influence on news outlets on the right and left. 

However, if a lack of reasoning and cognitive laziness are the actual culprits, it might just take simple nudges that facilitate thinking — for example, by making accuracy top-of-mind, and encouraging people to slow down while consuming online content.

“Our findings therefore suggest that susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than it is by partisan bias per se — a finding that opens potential avenues for fighting fake news,” the authors write.