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When we encounter a piece of information that sparks an emotional reaction or provides comfort in a confusing situation, such as a snippet of hot gossip or a plausible rumor, something in our brain clicks. This “click” is not rooted in judgment or rationality, but regardless, we often equate it to truth. Once this reaction occurs, it’s hard to undo.
This is why public health experts, community leaders, and everyday people have been working hard to knock down the COVID-19 misinformation that pops up daily on the internet and on social media. Once the misleading claims take root in our brains, the damage is done, and repairing the harm requires extra effort that isn’t always effective.
But individuals can strengthen their own guards against misinformation, too. Understanding how misinformation tricks the brain in the first place can help us spot falsehoods before they infiltrate our belief systems.
Misinformation works because our brains are lazy
Our brains love an easy answer. The less effort it takes to process information, the more comfortable we feel about it and the more we like it and trust it. In today’s world, these tendencies can make the brain more susceptible to getting tricked.
“The truth is we’re all vulnerable to misinformation, mainly because we can’t always pay perfect, full attention to every single thing we encounter,” said Tommy Shane, a misinformation and disinformation researcher. “Psychologically, we are evolved to be efficient, and efficient thinking and cognition often relies on taking shortcuts as much as we can.”
By definition, intuition is based on instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning. Our brains are programmed to rely on intuition from our hunter-gatherer days, when prompt decisions aided survival and reproduction. However, the modern world is much more complicated. When it comes to encountering information on the internet and on social media, it no longer suffices to react first and ask questions later. But humans have not fully adapted yet.
Misinformation thrives during times of crisis
People can be especially vulnerable to misinformation during times of crisis and when lacking context. The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic serve as a perfect example. There was not only a knowledge gap around this new virus, but also conflicting messaging from traditional sources of authority, including the CDC and public health officials.
According to Shane, during times like these, people tend to turn to “collective sensemaking” to alleviate their anxieties, a process that promotes the sharing of personal accounts and rumors, regardless of whether they’ve been validated or not. Our brains don’t like to be in a state of uncertainty, and believing these stories—even if we know that they’re just stories—is a way our brains make sense of the chaos.
“False narratives can fill that void of definitive, accurate information and tell clear stories that can be much more neat and tidy than the truth,” said Lisa Fazio, associate professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University.
Misinformation can target certain populations
Because misinformation spreads most effectively through our social networks—whether that’s through social media, messaging apps, or word-of-mouth—it can become especially prevalent among certain groups. Some populations, such as older adults, may be more susceptible due to lower digital literacy, while others may be more targeted by spreaders of falsehoods.
In the case of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, pregnant people have been frequent targets. Inaccurate but alarming stories about the vaccine’s effects on fertility, pregnancy, and unborn babies have taken root in the already anxious minds of pregnant people.
“Part of it is people are already worried or concerned, and so it’s even easier to play up those fears,” Fazio said.
Disinformation campaigns have also targeted communities of color that have a justified history of distrust in the medical system, taking advantage of and amplifying their existing wariness. Cancer patients are another population who, like pregnant people, are frantically searching for answers to stay safe, making them more likely to fall prey to simple but false answers.
Recognize and guard against misinfo’s techniques
Many pieces of vaccine misinformation attract people’s attention by preying on emotions, using a storytelling arc, and including some sort of dire outcome, said Rupali Limaye, a health communications scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Social media and a politically fraught environment have also helped to supercharge the spread of these deceiving stories.
Being aware of how misinformation works and how it prevails is the first step to avoiding it. By recognizing the techniques that people use to spread misinformation—including simplicity, emotion, and shock value—we can mitigate the initial effect it has on us. We can then take that critical pause and question whether what we just learned is true, or whether it’s our brains mistakenly believing what feels comfortable.