About the Talk
Why do people believe and share misinformation, including entirely fabricated news headlines (“fake news”) and biased or misleading coverage of actual events ("hyper-partisan" content)? The dominant narrative in the media and among academics is that we believe misinformation because we want to — that is, we engage in motivated reasoning, using our cognitive capacities to convince ourselves of the truth of statements that align with our political ideology rather than to undercover the truth. In a series of survey experiments using American participants, David Rand and colleagues challenged this account. They consistently found that subjects who perform better on the Cognitive Reflection Test (a measure of the tendency to engage in analytic thinking) are better able to identify false or biased headlines — even for headlines that align with individuals’ political ideology (for details, see here and here). They also found that when examining actual Twitter behavior, more reflective individuals share information from higher quality news sources. These findings suggest that susceptibility to misinformation is driven more by mental laziness and lack of reasoning than it is by partisan bias hijacking the reasoning process. They then build on this observation to examine interventions to fight the spread of misinformation. In one, they show that laypeople are much less biased in their evaluation of the trustworthiness of news outlets than one might imagine, and give fake news and hyperpartisan outlets low trust ratings regardless of their political slant. Thus, using crowdsourced ratings of outlet quality to inform social media ranking algorithms is a promising approach (for details, see here). Second, the researchers demonstrate the power of making the concept of accuracy top-of-mind, thereby increasing the likelihood that people think about the accuracy of headlines before they decide whether to share them. Rand's results suggest that reasoning is not held hostage by partisan bias, but that instead participants do have the ability to tell fake or inaccurate from real — if they bother to pay attention. The findings also suggest simple, cost-effective behavioral interventions to fight the spread of misinformation.
About the Speaker
David G. Rand is the Erwin H. Schell Professor and an Associate Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT Sloan, and the Director of the Human Cooperation Laboratory and the Applied Cooperation Team.
Bridging the fields of behavioral economics and psychology, Rand’s research combines mathematical/computational models with human behavioral experiments and online/field studies to understand human behavior. His work uses a cognitive science perspective grounded in the tension between more intuitive versus deliberative modes of decision-making, and explores topics such as cooperation/prosociality, punishment/condemnation, perceived accuracy of false or misleading news stories, political preferences, and the dynamics of social media platform behavior. His work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such Nature, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the American Economic Review, Psychological Science, and Management Science. He has received widespread attention from print, radio, TV and social media outlets, and has also written popular press articles for outlets including the New York Times, Wired, New Scientist, and the APS Observer. He was named to Wired magazine’s The Smart List 2012: “50 people who will change the world,” chosen as a 2012 Pop!Tech Science Fellow, received the 2015 Arthur Greer Memorial Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Research, and was selected as fact-checking researcher of the year in 2017 by the Poytner Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network. Papers he has coauthored have been awarded Best Paper of the Year in Experimental Economics, Social Cognition, and Political Methodology.
Rand received his B.A. in Computational Biology from Cornell University in 2004 and his Ph.D. in Systems Biology from Harvard University in 2009, was a post-doctoral researcher in Harvard University’s Department of Psychology from 2009 to 2013, and was an Assistant and then Associate Professor of Psychology, Economics, and Management at Yale University prior to joining the faculty at MIT.