Category Archives: Psychology

People believe falsehoods despite new factual info

This is not news, but it turns out can be replicated in carefully designed experiments, as researchers at University College in London have observed in a submission to the journal PLOS: Computational Biology. And it turns out this bias toward old facts we thought were true over new facts showing the opposite can still exist even when choosing the old beliefs costs us something in return.

This last presidential election was a watershed moment for many of us in terms of politics, and not in a good way. No matter which candidate one supported, the amount of false news being passed about online was staggering and, if you value credible news, disheartening.  I witnessed perfectly intelligent people — some with advanced degrees — sharing articles which most any informed person would immediately assume to be factually incorrect.

Part of this is because the purveyors of false news — whether they are simply offering clickbait to make money or because they are spreading political propaganda — have become much better at making fake news seem real.

But part of it is because the false news being spread on both sides simply confirmed the biases of the person sharing it — confirmation bias.  If an article confirms our previous beliefs it seems true for that very reason no matter how outlandish it might seem when held up to scrutiny.

But what if choosing the wrong answer we knew to be true previously would cost us something in return?

Researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, set up an experiment whereby individuals were shown symbols worth varying amounts of money. After a while, participants learned which symbols were worth most and began choosing those symbols as expected.

In a second experiment,  however, participants were shown the same lucrative symbols from the first experiment. Added to these were new symbols worth more money, making the choosing of the old symbols cost participants in terms of potential earnings lost.

An interesting thing happened: participants would still choose the old symbols even though they were plainly shown doing so would cost them money . 

This all sounds exceedingly simple, but the researchers controlled for all sort of variables in the participants and in the way they crunched their numbers.  I don’t know exactly what “dimensionality reduction and model comparison” and “parameter correlation and parameter recovery” are, but the trained scientists who do these sorts of experiments know exactly what they are and that is what elevates research like this from something you might do with your friends into the realm of accepted scientific research.

Of course, this will all have to be confirmed with more experiments by other scientists who read these results in this respected journal and try to replicate them, which is how science works and why it is so important that it be done properly.

These same kinds of results keep appearing in similar studies. If these findings are confirmed down the road it raises interesting questions for our everyday life, in education, and in understanding why people continue to hold onto false beliefs.

The researchers from University College have some ideas as to why people might still hold onto false information even when still believing it to be true might cost them something. 

Some of it might be simply the satisfaction of thinking we are correct and refusing to let go of that feeling that we are smart.

It also might hold some evolutionary reasons which translate into today’s world, such as the mere fact that, as other research has shown, being supremely confident in your own abilities and choices can often make a person with few facts and low ability more successful that a person with more facts, greater abilities but possessing chronically low self-confidence.

I have a friend, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, whose grandparents are staunch supporters of President Donald Trump despite the latter being tied to, and refusing to immediately condemn, Nazis and other forms of anti-Semitic rabble.

This has, of course, caused great pain among for the grandparents and some of their progeny who cannot understand how the grandparents could support such a man — especially considering the background of the grandparents with Nazi Germany.

There has been much shaming of the grandparents and hurt feelings on all sides. Through it all, grandpa — the self-made business success story — has dug in his heels with grandma the dutiful follower.

Grandpa the self-made man likely has much emotional real estate invested in his stubborn support of Trump.  Plying him with facts and condemning him for his choices has gotten nowhere.

Perhaps the best approach to grandpa — and anyone else we are trying to dissuade from contradictory beliefs which alarm us — is to find a way of helping them to save their ego while still choosing the the thing that is true over the thing they want to be true.

How one might do that is an open question and will likely vary from person to person.

In the real world, it is clear that telling a person how stupid they are for not acknowledging the plain-to-see (for most of us, anyway) facts in front of them simply doesn’t work with many people.

Article on clickbait could change your reading habits forever!

Clickbait Cartoons by Jim fish
Clickbait hits readers not on the level where they think, but rather on levels where they feel some investment, positive or negative, in the subject.

A total nonsense headline. Of course one article won’t change reading habits. But suggesting that it might, even if you know that is BS, is enough to get many to fall victim to clickbait even if we hate it.

Welcome to the world of clickbait. We know what it is. We know how to recognize it. We might even collectively despise it. But we are, on some fundamental levels of how humans process information and emotions, helpless against its allure.

In my city one of the worst purveyors of clickbait is TimeOut Chicago. The site itself is fine, one of a number of city sites under the TimeOut brand — a collection of information for locals and tourists about news, events, bars and nightclubs, restaurants and miscellania for whatever city in which you happen to find yourself.

The person who writes TimeOut headlines used to annoy the hell out of me because anything and everything was always at its extreme. Take the recent headline “Frighteningly apocalyptic scenes from Chicago’s tornado warning,” referring to an event that happened last summer when, admittedly, there were some pretty dramatic cloud formation events surrounding serious storms during which the CTA bus in which I was riding was swamped by sudden flooding and we had some tornado activity in the suburbs.

Now I’m not exactly certain what an “apocalyptic” scene in Chicago  is going to look like when and if it happens. I’m pretty sure it would be wet-your-pants scary. We’re talking crumbling buildings and infrastructure, bodies in the streets, looting and rioting, martial law and so on.

It sure as hell is not only going to be a bunch of fast-moving storm clouds.  What a stupid headline! Dumb asses! Who would be stupid enough to fall for such a thing?

Of course I clicked on it.

The fact is I wanted to be annoyed. The ploy can work both on people who want to see the possibly apocalyptic scenes and people like me who just want to see how big the lie really is.

Such is the nature of clickbait, as this very interesting article — no, the most interesting article on clickbait EVER! —  from the current issue of Wired explains:

Clickbait doesn’t just happen on its own. Editors write headlines in an effort to manipulate you—or at least grab your attention—and always have. “Headless Body In Topless Bar,” and “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” wouldn’t exist if publications didn’t care about attracting eyeballs. The difference with clickbait is you’re often aware of this manipulation, and yet helpless to resist it. It’s at once obvious in its bait-iness, and somehow still effective bait.

This has a lot to do with emotion and the role it plays in our daily decision-making processes, says Jonah Berger, who studies social influence and contagion at the University of Pennsylvania. Emotional arousal, or the degree of physical response you have to an emotion, is a key ingredient in clicking behaviors. Sadness and anger, for example, are negative emotions, but anger is much more potent. “It drives us, fires us up, and compels us to take action,” Berger says. If you’ve ever found yourself falling for outrage clickbait or spent time hate-reading and hate-watching something, you know what Berger is talking about. “Anger, anxiety, humor, excitement, inspiration, surprise—all of these are punchy emotions that clickbait headlines rely on,” he says.

A growing body of research supports this idea. In a recent paper called “Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter On Online News,” two researchers looked at 69,907 headlines produced by four international media outlets in 2014. After analyzing the sentiment polarity of these headlines (whether the primary emotion conveyed was positive, negative, or neutral), they found “an extreme sentiment score obtained the largest mean popularity.” This not only suggests that strongly negative or strongly positive news tends to attract more readers, they concluded, but also that “a headline has more chance to [receive clicks] if the sentiment expressed in its text is extreme, towards the positive or the negative side.”

There is no denying the allure of clickbait, even on an anecdotal level. I’ve experimented with this blog by writing headlines that are in the normal understated style of the former newspaper editor that I am, and then re-writing in a headline style that blatantly oversells both what they article says and what it does not say.  Overstated wins by a landslide.

That latter part of that is important: What does a clickbait headline take pains to not say yet still put the notion out there? As newspaper editor Andrew Marr noted in his 2004 book My Trade, sometimes being a good consumer of online information means looking just beneath the surface at key indicators that what you are reading might be clickbait:

“If the headline asks a question, try answering ‘no’. Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means ‘don’t bother reading this bit’.”

Knowing all this is one thing. Doing something about it when you are doing what we all do every day — just reading for fun or to pass the time — is another. 

The more I’ve learned about the psychology of clickbait, the more I realize that, if your goal is just to get more eyes on a page, it makes sense to use it — the sanctity and nuance of language be damned. Numbers don’t lie.

The question of whether content is king is still up for grabs, however. I might fall victim to clickbait, but if the articles themselves are not worth my time I see no reason to be a regular reader.

What all this has done is to help me make some modicum of peace with clickbait. It used to drive me crazy. Now I’m more likely to look at it from a distance and think, very often, “Wow. That is some really excellent clickbait.”

Clickbait Ishmael Clickhole is a web site specializing in stories with headlines that promise much and deliver little.