The Problem With Believing What We’re Told

Gary Marcus and Annie Duke:

The good news is that there’s increasing evidence that the needed critical-thinking skills can be taught. In a study published in November in the journal SSRN, Patricia Moravec of Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business and others looked at whether they could improve people’s ability to spot fake news. When first asked to assess the believability of true and false headlines posted on social media, the 68 participants—a mix of Democrats, Republicans and independents—were more likely to believe stories that confirmed their own prior views. But a simple intervention had an effect: asking participants to rate the truthfulness of the headlines. That tiny bit of critical reflection mattered, and it even extended to other articles that the participants hadn’t been asked to rate. The results suggest that just asking yourself, “Is what I just learned true?” could be a valuable habit.

Similar research has shown that just prompting people to consider why their beliefs might not be true leads them to think more accurately. Even young children can learn to be more critical in their assessments of what’s truthful, through curricula such as Philosophy for Children and other programs that emphasize the value of careful questioning and interactive dialogue. Ask students to ponder Plato, and they just might grow up to be more thoughtful and reflective citizens.

Rather than holding our collective breath waiting for social media companies to magically resolve the problem with yet-to-be invented algorithms for filtering out fake news, we need to promote information literacy. Nudging people into critical reflection is becoming ever more important, as malicious actors find more potent ways to use technology and social media to leverage the frailties of the human mind. We can start by recognizing our own cognitive weaknesses and taking responsibility for overcoming them.

Reading is job 1. Unfortunately, we have long tolerated disastrous reading results.