A recent Yale study found a correlation between the propensity to think analytically and the ability to discern real from fake news.

David Rand and Gordon Pennycook, researchers in Yale’s Department of Psychology, submitted a paper entitled “Who Falls for Fake News?” for publication on Sept. 12. Rand and Pennycook disseminated three tests in which they evaluated both participants’ analytic thinking, via the Cognitive Reflection Test, or CRT, and participants’ tendency to believe inaccurate and often fantastical news headlines. The study establishes a positive correlation between performance on the CRT and the ability to differentiate real from fake news, what the researchers described as “media truth discernment.”

“Fake news, and political misinformation more generally, is a huge problem facing the world currently, and we wanted to try to understand it as psychologists,” Rand said.

In their initial test, Pennycook and Rand presented 402 participants with six fake news items formatted in the style of a Facebook post and asked them to gauge the headlines’ accuracy on a scale of one to five. The two researchers also asked participants to complete the CRT and two questionnaires. The first questionnaire measured participants’ tendency to overclaim, or to declare familiarity with something that does not exist, while the second measured their inclination to find meaning in “pseudo-profound bulls—”: random sentences composed primarily of buzzwords, such as “we are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself.”

The study results show a “cluster of different behaviors which all relate to the same kind of automatic, intuitive cognitive style: falling for fake news, thinking random sentences — and Deepak Chopra quotes — are profound, claiming to know things which you don’t actually,” Rand said.

In short, a low CRT, high receptivity to “pseudo-profound bulls—” and willingness to overclaim predict the belief in the accuracy of fake news.

Students interviewed by the News were unsurprised by the study’s findings.

“It makes sense that with lower analytical skills it would be more difficult to detect bias, to detect hidden agendas,” said Matthew Wrocklage ’18.

According to Rand, identifying those who are more susceptible to fake news has larger implications.

“The ‘who’ also informs the ‘why’: Our work suggests that part of the ‘why’ is people not thinking about headlines they read in a careful, deliberative way,” he said.

The study also addresses an alternative account, according to which politically motivated reasoning drives belief in fake news. To test the motivated reasoning account, Pennycook and Rand compiled a larger list of fake and real news items geared towards Democrats and Republicans. They again asked participants to rate the stories’ accuracy.

The results not only disputed the motivated reasoning account, but they also revealed a difference in media truth discernment across partisan lines. Participants who reported voting for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 in the 2016 election were better able to discern fake from real news across the full range of items than those who reported supporting then–presidential candidate Donald Trump. In another model, the researchers tested whether CRT performance mediates the relationship between political beliefs and proclivity to fall for fake news. Data pointed to a negative correlation between analytical thinking and conservatism.

“I don’t think I’m too shocked,” Crystal Nieves ’21 said in response to the findings.

Rand mentioned receiving a little, but not too much, backlash from right-leaning organizations for the findings.

Further experimentation on the question of “Who Falls for Fake News?” seeks to dispel potential hitches in the conclusion that analytic individuals are genuinely better able to identify fake news. In part, it examines whether analytical thinkers have heightened media truth discernment simply because they are more skeptical of all news media or because they make judgments about the credibility of sources. Evidence gathered from the 402 participants suggests that neither explanation holds.

In a paper submitted concurrently with “Who Falls for Fake News?” Rand and Pennycook assessed the impact of third-party fact checking warnings on users’ inclination to believe fake news.

Brianna Wu | brianna.wu@yale.edu