The notion of “fake news” spread like wildfire in the United States after the 2016 election. Recent research in Psychological Science tried to determine what psychological factors drove this concept—generally defined as the suspicion that politically-biased news outlets produce deliberately falsified information. Through a series of six studies with more than 2,800 participants, the authors presented summaries of contested or retracted news stories and asked whether participants thought any inaccuracies were honest mistakes or deliberate attempts to mislead the public. They found that people with a strong need to see the world as structured, organized, and predictable were most likely to dismiss a story as intentionally falsified.
“There is something psychological here,” says coauthor Jordan Axt, a social psychologist who led the study as a postdoc at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Axt says it’s well-established— through a body of studies such as this one— that a strong need to see the world as orderly and predictable is associated with conspiratorial thinking. “So what’s new about this is we’re applying it in a timely context,” he adds. A good deal of past research has also studied which people are most likely to believe biased or falsified information. But few studies have explored the tendency of readers to discredit something that they don’t want to believe in the context of fake news, he says.
In this new work, participants took an online survey assessing their need for structure, which included questions such as “I don’t like situations that are uncertain.” Participants responded on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree. They also reported their political affiliation—only self-identified democrats and republicans were included in analyses. Each participant read summaries of contested or retracted news stories that either aligned or conflicted with their political views or read more general summaries casting suspicion on the liberal or conservative media, and were asked to what extent they thought any errors were accidental versus deliberate. To control for strong political ideology, the authors also presented republican participants with contested stories from the conservative media, and vice versa for democratic participants—that is, stories partisan adherents would therefore be less motivated to dismiss as fake.
Even so, the authors found a significant correlation between the need for structure and the tendency to call something fake news. Republican participants showed a stronger link between a need for structure and their labeling of a story as fake news. Past studies have shown that people with conservative political leanings tend to want to see the world as predictable rather than capricious. These latest findings do not say whether democrats or republicans are more likely to dismiss something as fake news in general, but do suggest that for republicans, categorizing a story as fake news may be more tied to a need for order. “Because republicans have a stronger baseline desire for structure, they may be more likely to turn to attributions of fake news as a way of seeing that structure in the world,” Axt says.
The six studies varied in the content the participants read. In some studies, participants read summaries of contested or retracted news stories. In others, they saw experimenter-created essays describing a recent uptick in retracted new stories from either typically liberal or conservative outlets that could reflect more general media bias. The studies also varied as to whether the scenarios aligned with a participant’s political views.
In all of the studies, there was a positive relationship between a participant’s need for structure and their tendency to suspect story errors were intentional, but the correlation was only significant in three of the six studies. A meta-analysis of all studies showed a small but robust association, Axt says. According to psychologist Lisa Fazio of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, this suggests that the need for structure does not by itself determine how people dismiss the news. “There’s obviously more going on,” says Fazio, who was not involved in the study. “I think there’s probably more personality variables that affect people’s desire to view the news media as purposely putting out false information.” Fazio didn’t speculate on what variables those might be.
But for those people who do have a strong need for structure, the logic of fake news makes sense, says paper coauthor and social psychologist Aaron Kay at Duke. “Say I’m a democrat, and I don’t want to believe a story that suggests the world is not built the way I want to believe,” he explains. That democrat could dismiss the story in one of two ways. They could just shrug and say the story was incorrect because the journalist made a random, accidental error, Kay notes. But this would also mean that the “people who supply information are randomly making mistakes,” Kay says, and therefore that the world is not predictable. If instead the democrat believes the error was intentional, then they can discredit the story while continuing to understand the world as orderly. “That’s why we look at the need for structure as a variable,” Kay says.
Axt says follow-up studies could survey participants monthly during the election cycle, to see if perceptions of fake news remain constant over time. They may not. When a participant’s preferred candidate is low in the polls, Axt says he might expect to see “corresponding increases in the idea that the news media is trying to deceive us.”