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Neuroscience: our relationship with intelligence

Vaccination against the “infodemic”

Patrice Georget, Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen
On February 18th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Patrice Georget
Patrice Georget
Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen
Key takeaways
  • To function optimally the brain simplifies information to process it more efficiently, often resorting to cognitive biases.
  • Cognitive biases, however, can also reinforce prejudice without hard evidence, create false memories and drive us towards sensationalism.
  • Fake news and conspiracy theories often rely on these cognitive biases to irrationally question values we are not used to defending because we take them for granted, such as freedom of speech.
  • But there are ways to strengthen one’s “immunity” to fake news, especially by learning how to identify the mechanisms of these cognitive biases, or by developing critical thinking.

How can we stay alert when faced with ques­tion­able infor­ma­tion in a time of cri­sis? What atti­tude can we adopt to con­tend with unfound­ed con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and para­noid rants?

Free­dom of infor­ma­tion, a dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of democ­ra­cy, is also one of its great­est weak­ness­es because of the inher­ent psy­cho­log­i­cal capac­i­ty for each of us to be naïve or gullible. Indeed, our brain is sub­ject to men­tal short­cuts that we too often attribute to oth­ers rather than ourselves.

Cog­ni­tive bias­es, prej­u­dice, stereo­types and false mem­o­ries insid­i­ous­ly affect our per­cep­tion and judge­ment. We delight in the sen­sa­tion­al, rapid sat­is­fac­tion, sim­ple or even sim­plis­tic rea­son­ing, but also con­sen­sus-based expla­na­tions and dichoto­mous think­ing, as in the case of the famous false dilem­ma: “either you are with us, or against us.

Intent on decid­ing and act­ing imme­di­ate­ly in the present, these psy­cho­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms reveal what the econ­o­mist and Nobel prize win­ner Richard Thaler calls the “doer” self 1. The oppo­site is the “plan­ner” self, mean­ing the cog­ni­tive process­es which require more effort; the require time, mod­esty, and per­spec­tive as well as the tools to observe and com­pare facts. Man­ag­ing this “doer-plan­ner” con­flict is at the heart of our free will. Espe­cial­ly giv­en that, in times of cri­sis, uncer­tain­ty about the future and an “info­dem­ic” envi­ron­ment, strong­ly enhance pre-exist­ing prejudice.

Beat­ing con­spir­a­cy theories

The fight against con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries is a major sub­ject of con­tem­po­rary research, which is reflect­ed in the work on inhi­bi­tion led in France by Olivi­er Houdé 2. Inhi­bi­tion is a process of atten­tive con­trol and cog­ni­tive resis­tance that blocks heuris­tics, ques­tion­able intu­itions and rigid prej­u­dices, so that they can be chal­lenged by the mind. 

This process can be trained and enhanced. But it remains dif­fi­cult because, for the “doer”, fake news and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries are tasty morsels that car­ry con­vinc­ing rhetoric sup­port­ed by “per­sua­sive lubri­cants” such as author­i­ty fig­ures, illu­sions of cor­re­la­tion, generalisations…the list is long. Every­one tries to con­vince them­selves that they are more or less aware of this under­ly­ing con­flict and their abil­i­ty to mas­ter it.

Some of these cog­ni­tive bias­es are even also there to give us the feel­ing that we are not at the mer­cy of these pit­falls! This is the case for the over­con­fi­dence effect – a bias which explains why more than half of the pop­u­la­tion believe they are smarter than aver­age, that 93% of dri­vers con­sid­er them­selves bet­ter than oth­er motorists 3, and that 94% of uni­ver­si­ty lec­tur­ers believe that they are more com­pe­tent than their col­leagues 4!

What about you? Don’t you throw the dice more gen­tly when you want a small num­ber and more ener­get­i­cal­ly when you want a large one?! The illu­sion of con­trol coax­es us into think­ing that we pos­sess a reas­sur­ing pow­er, includ­ing in the face of uncertainty.

Cul­tur­al truisms

But anoth­er, less obvi­ous, prob­lem explains the pow­er of fake news and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries; “cul­tur­al tru­isms” and the deficit in democ­ra­cy they are asso­ci­at­ed with. A cul­tur­al tru­ism is a cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, acquired through edu­ca­tion, which serves as a com­mon ground and is wide­ly shared between the mem­bers of a com­mu­ni­ty. As such, it is rarely debat­ed or chal­lenged – hence its weak­ness. Some exam­ples include non-con­tro­ver­sial val­ues (hon­esty, equal­i­ty, equi­ty), or prin­ci­ples con­sid­ered to be obvi­ous in some soci­eties (sec­u­lar­ism or the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of human rights). 

Since tru­isms are self-evi­dent, we are not aware of the rea­sons for which we adhere to these val­ues, and we are not trained to defend them when they are chal­lenged. Let us con­sid­er the teach­ers who had to explain and jus­ti­fy free­dom of speech to their class in the wake of Samuel Paty’s mur­der in Con­flans-Sainte-Hon­orine (France).

Con­tem­po­rary tru­isms are often tar­get­ed by con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. For exam­ple, they present sci­ence as a nar­ra­tive very sim­i­lar to oth­ers (Eti­enne Klein explains this prob­lem per­fect­ly in his lat­est short work, Le goût du vrai, 2020 5). Thus, the tru­ism accord­ing to which “sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge seeks truth and works for the good of humankind” is com­plete­ly under­mined, as are the ben­e­fits of vac­ci­na­tion, or glob­al warm­ing linked to human activity.

Fake news: shortcuts 

Since scep­ti­cism is born from a lack of herd immu­ni­ty against con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, how then can we stim­u­late the immune sys­tem of our social fab­ric? First­ly, through effi­cient pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of the ideas tar­get­ed by con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. For exam­ple, by explain­ing how sci­ence works and the fun­da­men­tal basis of free speech and sec­u­lar­ism. But this can also be achieved by under­stand­ing our own indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive naivety in the face of fake news and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. A mech­a­nism that can help us inhib­it our “doer self”.

Being aware of these bias­es does not seem to be enough though, we must improve our skills and our abil­i­ty to present effec­tive coun­ter­ar­gu­ments to con­front fake news and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. This ques­tion of the defence of tru­isms is not new, but it resur­faces in the light of cur­rent events. It was for­malised by the psy­chol­o­gist William McGuire in his “inoc­u­la­tion the­o­ry”, which has been mak­ing a come­back in sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tions over the past three years. Anal­o­gous to bio­log­i­cal inoc­u­la­tion, the pur­pose of psy­cho­log­i­cal inoc­u­la­tion is to help indi­vid­u­als cre­ate their own defences, using “psy­cho­log­i­cal anti­bod­ies” to resist per­sua­sive exter­nal attacks.

As with med­i­cine, the social fab­ric of democ­ra­cy needs immu­ni­ty to resist the info­dem­ic – espe­cial­ly if it is weak­ened by a crisis. 

The solu­tion: a vaccine 

The psy­cho­log­i­cal inoc­u­la­tion process con­sists of a reverse train­ing prac­tice: to under­stand how to wield con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and fal­la­cious argu­ments, call­ing tru­isms into ques­tion in order to unrav­el their mech­a­nisms and skil­ful­ly decon­struct them. Train­ing to chal­lenge evi­dence is not an easy task, because it must first pass by a respect for the very strate­gies that we are try­ing to over­come, so that we can mas­ter them lat­er on. It is how­ev­er a very promis­ing approach in con­tem­po­rary research.

An inoc­u­la­tion work­shop is usu­al­ly divid­ed into three ses­sions: a defence phase, an attack phase, and final­ly a rebut­tal phase. The defence phase con­sists of pro­vid­ing or pro­duc­ing argu­ments in favour of the idea we wish to defend (for exam­ple, free­dom of speech). In the attack phase, par­tic­i­pants will lis­ten or hon­est­ly and sin­cere­ly devel­op oppos­ing argu­ments to this idea, but also use com­mon con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry tricks. In our exam­ple, free­dom of speech is chal­lenged. In oth­er words, par­tic­i­pants behave as con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists or antagonists. 

Final­ly, the rebut­tal phase of the inoc­u­la­tion pro­to­col con­sists in pre­sent­ing coun­ter­ar­gu­ments to train and stim­u­late psy­cho­log­i­cal defences. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in these work­shops in small groups leads to “social inoc­u­la­tion”, where par­tic­i­pants also learn from one another.

Today, tri­als based on “democ­ra­cy work­shops” or “fake news games” allow mem­bers to car­ry out sim­u­la­tions and learn to play the roles of con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists. Researchers like Jon Roozen­beek in Cam­bridge show how much this type of ped­a­gogy helps to reduce the per­sua­sive pow­er of fake news arti­cles, to put con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries into per­spec­tive and sharp­en the defence of the val­ues we hold dear 6. Democ­ra­cy should not be tak­en for grant­ed: our soci­eties need to devel­op and train the skills of their cit­i­zens more than ever if they want to be the archi­tects of their future.

1Richard Thaler (2018) Mis­be­hav­ing
2Olivi­er Houdé (2019) L’In­tel­li­gence humaine n’est pas un algo­rithme
3Ola Sven­son. Are we all less risky and more skill­ful than our fel­low dri­vers? Acta Psy­cho­log­i­ca 47, 143–148, 1981
4K. Patri­cia Cross. Not Can But Will Col­lege Teach­ing Be Improved. New Direc­tions for High­er Edu­ca­tion, 17:1–15, 1977
5Eti­enne Klein (2020) Le goût du vrai
6Roozen­beek, J., van der Lin­den, S. (2019). Fake news game con­fers psy­cho­log­i­cal resis­tance against online mis­in­for­ma­tion. Pal­grave Com­mun 5, 65


Patrice Georget

Patrice Georget

Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen

Patrice Georget is a lecturer and researcher in psycho-sociology at the IAE Caen University school of management, which he directed from 2015 to 2020. He has been an industry consultant in diversity management and risk prevention. He has been an expert for the APM (Association Progrès du Management) since 2009 and a GERME speaker.

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