Why are People Willing to Excuse and Spread Misinformation?

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Why are People Willing to Excuse and Spread Misinformation?

Jim Windell

             Whether we are subject to the outrageous claims of politicians, the incredible boasting of a pharmaceutical company’s TV ads or the retweeted article from a conspiracy theorist, we are undeniably constantly having to filter through misinformation. Every day, it seems we have to try to make sense of the information that comes our way.

            But who spreads misinformation – and how could they possibly condone the half-truths, the fantastic and the outright lies they peddle?

             That’s the question that was asked in a research project that was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.   

            According to lead author of the study, Beth Anne Helgason, “The rise in misinformation is a pressing societal problem, stoking political polarization and eroding trust in business and politics.” Helgason, a doctoral student at the London Business School, goes on to say that misinformation in part persists because some people believe it. “But that’s only part of the story,” she says. “Misinformation also persists because sometimes people know it is false but are still willing to excuse it.”

            What makes people willing to excuse false or misleading information?

           To explore why people might be willing to condone this misinformation, Helgason and her colleague conducted six experiments involving more than 3,600 participants. The researchers showed participants in each study a variety of statements, clearly identified as false, and then asked some participants to reflect on predictions about how the statements might become true in the future.

           In one experiment, researchers asked 447 MBA students from 59 different countries who were taking a course at a UK business school to imagine that a friend lied on their resume, for example by listing financial modeling as a skill despite having no prior experience. The researchers then asked some participants to consider the possibility of the lie becoming true (e.g., “Consider that if the same friend enrolls in a financial modeling course that the school offers in the summer, then he could develop experience with financial modeling”). They found that students thought it was less unethical for a friend to lie when they imagined whether their friend might develop this skill in the future.

           In another experiment, 599 American participants viewed six markedly false political statements designed to appeal to either conservatives or liberals, including, “Millions of people voted illegally in the last presidential election” and, “The average top CEO makes 500 times more than the average worker.” Each statement was clearly labelled as false by reputable, non-partisan fact-checkers. Participants were then asked to generate their own predictions about how each statement might become true in the future. For instance, they were told that “It’s a proven fact that the average top CEO currently makes 265 times more money than the average American worker,” then asked to respond to the open-ended prompt, “The average top CEO will soon make 500 times more money than the average American worker if …”

           The researchers found that participants on both sides of the political aisle who imagined how false statements could eventually become true were less likely to rate the statement as unethical than those who did not because they were more likely to believe its broader meaning was true. This was especially the case when the false statement fit with their political views. Importantly, participants knew these statements were false, yet imagining how they might become true made people find them more excusable.

           Even when the researchers prompted the participants to think carefully before judging the falsehoods did not change how ethical the participants found the statements, explained study co-author Daniel Effron, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School.

           “Our findings are concerning, particularly given that we find that encouraging people to think carefully about the ethicality of statements was insufficient to reduce the effects of imagining a future where it might be true,” Effron said. “This highlights the negative consequences of giving airtime to leaders in business and politics who spout falsehoods.”

           The researchers also found that study participants were more inclined to share misinformation on social media when they imagined how it might become true – but only if it aligned with their political views. According to Helgason, this suggests that when misinformation supports one’s politics people may be willing to spread it because they believe the statement to be essentially, if not literally, true.

           “Our findings reveal how our capacity for imagination affects political disagreement and our willingness to excuse misinformation,” Helgason said. “Unlike claims about what is true, propositions about what might become true are impossible to fact-check. Thus, partisans who are certain that a lie will become true eventually may be difficult to convince otherwise.”

           To read the article, find it with this reference:

Helgason, B.A. & Effron, D. (2022). It might become true: How prefactual thinking licenses dishonesty. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online April 14, 2022.



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