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Can the Effects of Fake News be Reversed by Affirming the Self?

Dustin Carnahan

In the age of fake news, concerns about misinformation seem to have reached a pinnacle in U.S. society. A new research study to be published in Human Communication Research reports the results from two experiments that test whether beliefs based in “fake news” can be affected.

“Once people believe something that is false is true, correcting those beliefs is extremely difficult,” said Dustin Carnahan, lead researcher of the new study. The explanation behind this tendency, according to Carnahan, is “motivated reasoning,” that people respond defensively to information that challenges their existing worldviews – including their factual beliefs about the world. Carnahan is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Michigan State University.

“The question that the team pursued was whether or not it was possible to reduce defensive reasoning as a response to corrective information,” he said. “We call this self-affirmation, that people have an inherent motivation to preserve and protect their sense of self-worth. We all try to view ourselves and good, decent and moral people.”

Prior research about persuasion has shown that by affirming a person’s self-worth, it is possible to make them more accepting of – and even more likely to change their attitudes in response to – information coming from alternative perspectives.

Across two multi-wave experimental studies focusing on issues that have been plagued by a high degree of public misunderstanding – Common Core and genetically modified foods – Carnahan’s team found evidence that an act of self-affirmation promotes greater levels of belief accuracy in response to corrective information, especially for those people who are likely to be the most threatened by corrective information.

Findings from the study suggest that fact-checkers need to consider their audience when crafting their messages if they want to correct beliefs, presenting factual corrections in a way that does not threaten – and perhaps even promotes – one’s self-concept.

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