It shouldn’t be news to anyone that the internet has introduced — and continues to introduce, as it evolves — a trillion ways to spread false information. It has turned out to be arguably the biggest boon to conspiracy theorizing, spin doctoring, and just general wrong-being in human history.
As an individual, how do you fight back against the constant threat of believing false information and passing it on to friends? That’s the question David Dunning tackled in a blog post he wrote last week for the Conversation. You may recognize that name, since it’s half of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological principle he co-developed with Justin Kruger which states, in effect, that incompetent people are the worst judges of how competent they are.
Dunning’s advice can be boiled down to a few key points:
1. Ask: Is this piece of information satisfying to me? If it is, be careful. People “readily spread stories that already fit their worldview,” Dunning writes. He’s referring to one particular study, but the idea holds true more generally: When something makes perfect sense and slides neatly into our other conceptions of how the world works, we’re more likely to believe it and to pass it on. So that urgent feeling of Of course! might feel like a solid sign you should believe something you’re reading — and maybe pass it on to a friend — but, if anything, it should make you more vigilant about the potential of being wrong.
2. Force yourself to imagine why the piece of information might be wrong. It’s not enough to be wary of facts that have that warm truthy feel to them, of course. To really battle your biases, you should actively engage in the exercise of imagining other explanations for whatever piece of information you’re seeing. Maybe the source has an agenda, or maybe something was taken out of context. At least try to imagine why something is wrong before you choose to fully embrace it as a fact. It sounds simple, but it’s a habit that doesn’t come easily.
3. Specifically seek out sources of information you’ll be likely to disagree with. Okay, so this isn’t from Dunning’s post, but is a common-sense way to get a bit more skeptical. Some of the most annoying, paranoid, and credulous people on the internet got that way in part because they only sought out sources of information that reinforced their worldview. It’s like the cognitive equivalent of eating donuts 24/7 — you get bloated and lazy in your thinking. An easy way to avoid this is to find information sources that won’t drive you crazy, but which will challenge your assumptions in constructive ways. Sources that will give you a bit of a cognitive workout, in other words.
The common thread running through all these suggestions is the importance of knocking yourself out of the habits of knee-jerk belief and reaction. To use the now-obligatory model (obligatory because it’s so useful), whenever possible, you want to engage in thoughtful “system 2” thinking rather than reactive “system 1” thinking. That’s doubly true when you’re stressed out, or when the issue in question is a deeply emotional one. In short: Think before you retweet.