Psychological Determinants of the Susceptibility to Fake News amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Abstract

In this study, we seek to examine whether the belief in conspiracy theories and one’s ability to regulate emotions are related to one’s tendency to fall prey to fake news.

Publication
Makowski, D., Lau, Z. J., Pham, T., & Chen, S. H. A. (in preparation). Psychological Determinants of the Susceptibility to Fake News amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads across the globe, the world is in parallel flooded by information reporting a wide range of facts, which veracity is not always verifiable. Indeed, it has become increasingly apparent that the COVID-19 fake news pandemic is becoming just as viral as the outbreak of the disease itself, evidenced by the need for researchers and authorities to track the spread of misinformation. As a consequence, the Ministry of Health in Singapore has even dedicated an entire website (See here: https://www.moh.gov.sg/covid-19/clarifications) to debunk all instances of fake news.

The Role of Conspiracy Theories

While the authorities are struggling to provide concrete explanations about the coronavirus, conspiracy theorists are quick to provide competing ones with confidence. This has exaggerated the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories - beliefs that seek to explain the cause of an event by a hidden, wicked and unlawful scheme, without scientific support. For instance, a theory that the new 5G technology causes the spread of coronavirus outbreak was widely circulated and peddled by conspiracy theorists. Studies have shown that conspiracy theories are often endorsed by people who feel powerless. Their rejection of mainstream accounts and adoption of conspiracy explanations is an attempt to make sense of the world beyond their control (Swami & Furnham, 2010). The uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic might prompt people, especially individuals with higher schizotypal tendencies (characterized by suspicion, social anxiety and paranoid ideation), to engage in this sense-making mechanism, seeking alternative explanations to regain their sense of control. People who have the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories have been found to rely more on intuition (Pennycook, Cheyne, Barr, Koehler & Fugelsang, 2015; Pennycook & Rand, 2018) and are hence more susceptible to fake news beliefs.

The Role of Emotions

In a global pandemic where the world is in a constant elevated state of anxiety, fake news beliefs can befall anyone for reasons beyond just the persistent cognitive biases that characterize conspiracist theorists. People are often left feeling fearful and anxious due to the endless bombardment of pandemic news information, regardless of its accuracy. Fake news on COVID-19 are especially emotionally engaging because they play on people’s helplessness by offering some miracle remedy or fueling anger towards authorities handling the situation.

A research team led by Gordon Pennycook, a researcher on the psychology of misinformation, found that individuals are more likely to perceive fake news headlines as accurate when they were in an emotional state (Martel et al., 2019). At the Clinical Brain Lab, we have started research into this area during the Circuit Breaker period. We propose that the underlying factor driving susceptibility to fake news beliefs is not just the mere presence of negative affect, but how one regulates these emotions. This refers to the ability to control one’s emotional state, such as considering alternative interpretations of an otherwise negative situation.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, an important aspect of emotion regulation is being able to navigate through the uncertainties of the future. With future plans now at a standstill and emotions running high, we become less tolerant of uncertainty and feel more helpless about our circumstances. Poor self-control makes us cognitively lazy, believing something because “it feels right” and aligned with our emotions. Fast, intuitive processing thus often takes precedence over effortful and reflective thinking, of which the latter is needed to discern whether a piece of news is real or fake (Pennycook & Rand, 2019). We are thus more vulnerable to engaging in fake news than we think.

Our Research

As it is important to delineate the psychological determinants of the belief in fake news as part of a global effort in combating misinformation, Prof Annabel Chen together with Research Fellow Dr Dominique Makowski and research assistants (Pham Thanh Tam and Lau Zen Juen) are currently conducting an investigation into the spread of COVID-19 fake news in Singapore. Specifically, this study seeks to examine whether the belief in conspiracy theories and one’s ability to regulate emotions are related to one’s tendency to fall prey to fake news. This study is pre-registered at OSF and currently undergoing data analysis.

Dominique Makowski
Dominique Makowski
Presidential Research Fellow

Trained as neuropsychologist and CBT psychotherapist, I am currently working as a researcher at the Clinical Brain Lab in Singapore, on the neuroscience of reality perception.

Lau Zen Juen
Lau Zen Juen
Project Officer

Zen Juen is currently a Project Officer at Clinical Brain Lab. She is working on the neuroscience of deception.

Tam Pham
Tam Pham
Project Officer

Tam Pham is currently a Project Officer at Clinical Brain Lab. She is working on the neuroscience of deception.

Annabel Chen
Annabel Chen
Professor of Psychology
Lab Director

Dr. SH Annabel Chen is a clinical neuropsychologist, and currently a Faculty member of Psychology at the School of Social Sciences.

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