Why your beliefs are false

Information is everywhere; how sure can we be of its authenticity?

This post is also available in Dutch.

We are overwhelmed with data and opinions. The news on TV, the buzzy notifications on your phone, the random chat we heard at the cafe. It is a train of information and it doesn’t seem to stop. Yet, how often do we question the truth of this information?

Nowadays, social media allow people to have quick and easy access to a wide range of information. However, a recent survey showed that 9 out of 10 Americans don’t fact-check what they read on social media. This is pretty worrying given that the average user spends more than 2 hours daily on social media. And a likely result is that users end up believing things that are not actually true.

Why do people often believe things that are not true?

Psychologists have investigated the reasons why people hold on to false beliefs, and they highlighted how social media can have a role. Apparently, people often give more credit to information that is more readily found, regardless of its truth value.  This is a type of mental shortcut that prioritizes things that are more available. Moreover, social media tend to display content that fits our interests and beliefs based on our search history. This all generates a confirmation bias, which consists of selecting the particular information that supports our beliefs or interests.   

Holding false beliefs is pretty common, and even more so when you are very smart.

We can all be biased. It may surprise you, but very smart people are not immune. People that are considered to be smarter are actually less able to recognize their biases and experience a kind of “Intelligence trap”.   For these people, cognitive biases – like seeking confirmation – are stronger than average and become further reinforced over time. This might explain why the doctor and brilliant writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a fervid believer in fairies.

How do we critically question the authenticity of what we believe?

The key starts with understanding and recognizing that we can all be biased. It is necessary to accept that there is no one truth and we should always be open to different sources of information. Also, although self-doubt can be uncomfortable, it is important to learn to deal with it – before looking for confirmations that are might be often incorrect. This mindset should therefore guide us while using social media, a great but quite unregulated source of information.

Author: Martina Arenella
Buddy: Floortje Bouwkamp
Editor: Rebecca Calcott
Translator: Felix Klaassen
Editor translation: Floortje Bouwkamp

Photo credits to Ijmaki via Pixabay

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