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Why some fall victim to fake news

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By Jennifer Cockerell, Press Association Health Correspondent

Thought processes and belief systems that people develop early in life to help protect against the anxiety and stress of an uncertain world may help explain why some fall victim to fake news, psychologists believe.

But psychology can offer a few evidence-based strategies for defending against the pull of fake news, such as keeping an open mind and critical thinking, according to a series of presentations at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

The key to people's accepting fake news as true, despite evidence to the contrary, is a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, or the tendency for people to seek and accept information that confirms their existing beliefs while rejecting or ignoring that which contradicts those beliefs, they said.

Many of these beliefs and biases are formed early in life when children begin to distinguish between fantasy and reality, according to developmental psychologist Eve Whitmore.

Some of these beliefs can be based in fantasy, and that can lead to nonsensical thinking.

"From the beginning, parents reinforce to their children the skill of pretending in order to cope with the realities inherent in culture and society," she said.

"Children's learning about make-believe and mastery of it becomes the basis for more complex forms of self-deception and illusion into adulthood."

She said parents commonly encourage young children to engage in pretend play, where they often practise real life scenarios like playing house, which help to reinforce cultural norms and beliefs and aid in assimilation as they age.

But this means that children also learn that sometimes it is OK to make believe things are true - even though they know they are not, Dr Whitmore added.

In adolescence, people develop critical thinking skills and some begin to question what they were taught as children, such as religious beliefs or even the belief that authority figures such as parents or government leaders are always right.

But going against one's parents' beliefs can cause friction within the family, and, despite evidence to the contrary, some are willing to rationalise those false beliefs in order to avoid upsetting their parents, she said.

It may begin as a conscious decision, but as rationalisation piles on top of rationalisation over the years, these processes can become unconscious.

As people reach adulthood, many of these false beliefs and biases formed as children, instead of being given a good critical examination, are simply accepted and continue to influence how a person perceives the world, Mark Whitmore, assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University's College of Business Administration added.

"In this way, childhood beliefs persevere throughout a person's life and serve as a framework for processing information in adulthood," he said.

"In attempting to confirm preconceived ideas, a person may resort to both fiction and reality in order to preserve these beliefs."

Psychologists said one key to avoiding the pull of confirmation bias is by reducing the anxiety that makes it so appealing.

Prof Whitmore said: "One positive defence strategy is humour.

"Watching late night comedy or political satire, while not actually altering or changing the source of the stressor, can help reduce the stress and anxiety associated with it.

"Another is sublimation, where you channel your negative feelings into something positive, such as running for office, marching in a protest or volunteering for a social cause."

He also recommended that people cultivate an open mind by deliberately exposing themselves to different points of view. This can help them moderate their viewpoints and make them less extreme.

Critical thinking is also key and people must learn to question what they are told, beginning in childhood.

"Developing a greater degree of scepticism in children, by encouraging them to ask why and to question, diminishes confirmation bias," he added.

"All of these strategies have substantial research supporting their beneficial effects."

He said the rise of the internet and social media has only compounded the problem of fake news.

"In today's media environment, the channels are multiple, and the messages are often simultaneous and contradictory," he said.

"The receiver is often faced with paradoxical and seemingly absurd messages. It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality."

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