By Nuala Walsh
Fake news has exploded in recent years and is the number one communication risk. Or is it? Are you sure? Meanwhile, ‘false memories’ – which are essentially ‘fake’ memories – have been explored by neuroscientists for decades. These phenomena appear separate and are rarely linked in research but have much in common. Together, pose a serious risk to judgement and decision-making. Not only are they our key sources of information but also our key sources of misinformation. Predictably, when decision inputs are inaccurate, decision error results, carrying high-risk consequences for individuals and organisations who rely on accuracy – from policymakers to politicians, leaders to legislators.
Fake news has unnecessarily wiped millions of dollars off stock markets, rigged voting elections and destroyed reputations. Attention-grabbing headlines continue to dupe its victims. The World Health Organisation describes fake news as a dangerous ‘infodemic’ which ‘spreads faster and more easily than the virus’. Fake news is not new. Governments have planted propaganda for years. What’s new is its scale and penetration. Facebook’s fake stories receive 158.9 million views. But while it’s easy to blame misinformation on propaganda, Twitter or Facebook, reality lies closer to home. In your mirror, or more accurately, your memory.
Nobel-prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, compares what we experience in the moment, the ‘experiencing self,’ with the ‘remembering self’ – or what might be alternatively termed, the ‘mis-remembering self’! What we feel now in full or partial lockdown is not what will be remembered. We will distort today’s feelings of confinement and frustration. Instead we will exaggerate, forget, substitute, infer, misinterpret and misattribute meaning. Edited over time, our flawed memories become a type of fictitious story – and fictitious stories are central to fake news. Behavioural science can help manage these influences. But first, let’s compare fake news with fake memories.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Fake news and fake memories differ in several material respects. While fake news is created intentionally, fake memories are created unintentionally. Fake news is created externally while fake memories are self-generated. Fake news uses click-bait to drive titillation while fake memories trigger nostalgia. Fake news can be independently fact-checked while introspection yields few clues beyond recorded events. And fake news mostly shapes public opinion while memories shape private opinion.
Yet there is more commonality than initially apparent. Both memory and fake news are flawed associative mechanisms. Both spread misinformation in a networked ecosystem of inter-connected data. Both are hard to detect and control. Both are devoid of any warning flags, leading to unconscious flawed decisions. These flawed decisions are rooted in inaccurate premises, layered into our belief systems over time, making us vulnerable to error, delusion and regret. This is amplified when we are busy, cognitively overloaded or distracted by a pandemic.
So why do we only question fake news and not our memories? As my own truth oracle, I assume that what I believe is objectively true. Who suspects themselves as a misinformation carrier? We accept at face-value any data that echoes our existing beliefs, especially if congruent with ideological, political or religious beliefs. Motivated reasoning plays a major role. And confirmation bias makes intuitions more compelling. Contrary opinion is not what we want to hear so we ignore it. Few want to admit mistakes when invested in subjective beliefs, ideas or projects. So how do these different information sources contribute to what we misremember and how can we contain them?
The ‘Misremembering’ Self
Fake news is just one mechanism that contaminates our memory. We experience distortion automatically through information overload, stress and age-degeneration. Exposure to information through the power of suggestion also distorts memory in the ‘misinformation effect’. In 1974, Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated the sensitivity of eye-witness testimony. Five groups watched simulated traffic accidents and were asked to estimate the average speed before the cars hit. The verb ‘hit’ was varied with ‘smashed-collided-bumped-contacted’. Subjects estimated higher speed when exposed to ‘smashed’ (49.8%) than ‘contacted ‘(32.8%) or ‘hit’ (34%). Days later, witnesses recalled broken glass, inserting new fabricated evidence. This suggestibility matters. The US Registry of Exonerations attributes eye-witness misidentification to 69% of wrongful death penalty convictions.
Despite the value that most people place on truth and honourable intention, even the smartest people are as susceptible to media-generated mistruths as they are to fictionalised memories. Rather than deliberate intent to deceive yourself or others, you prize your memories, even of lockdown – instantly shared on smartphones or Instagram. You want to preserve them for future retrieval. But like the smartphone, memories merely record snapshots in transient moments. The photo fades. Most people think they watched the Space Shuttle Challenger crash live but most watched taped replays – in 1986, only CNN and NASA broadcast this via satellite.
Our gullibility is especially true with emotional and politically charged topics. In a memory study conducted during Ireland’s 2018 abortion referendum, nearly half of participants reported a false memory, again with new details inserted, like the broken glass. People with lower cognitive ability were most susceptible. And in today’s always-on distracted world, that’s most of us!
Falling for fake news costs. In 2017, traders reacted to false rumours about the death of the founder of cryptocurrency platform, Ethereum. Its value dropped $4bn. Ironically, as people struggle to differentiate fact from fiction, exposure to fake news compounds our memory error in four ways.
Misinformation & Misremembering: A Problem Compounded
Firstly, repeated exposure to stories on newsfeeds and websites has been found to increase story credibility and plausibility. This exposure creates a new false memory. Imagine that you read about a scientific discovery. Repeated media coverage makes this familiar and easy to recall. You trust and act on it, sharing with others. Similarly, the market-sensitive trader unconsciously picks stocks based on these salient stories. An Insead study shows that on days with no media, ie when newspapers went on strike, trading volumes fell 12%. Worryingly, false memories are shown to be easily created, even when people are explicitly warned against the danger of fake news.
Secondly, repeated exposure to information contributes to memory stickiness, including fake fragments. The more we hear something, the more we believe it is true. You may still think Hillary Clinton sold arms to ISIS or Pope Francis endorsed the candidacy of Donald Trump whose grandfather was allegedly in the Ku-Klux Klan! The problem is that we continue to believe stories, even when facts are disproved, typical of the illusory-truth effect. These stories become our perceived reality, especially when we tune into stories about our preferred sports teams, politicians or musicians.
Thirdly, several studies have demonstrated how repeated exposure to misinformation makes sharing news feels less morally wrong because the information feels familiar. Information is quickly shared if sourced from trusted messengers. In reality, we are poor at detecting deception – as many a betrayed partner will testify! Analysis of 206 studies found that individuals spot deception just 4% of the time. That suggests we are 96% gullible.
Fourthly, flawed science and the replication crisis perpetuate misinformation. Another form of fake news? Priming studies famously advocated that people exposed to money are more selfish, or those hearing words like ‘wrinkle’ and ‘Florida’ walk more slowly. A 2006 BBC-sponsored replication of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment found that guards failed to impose authority. Leading journals also tend to only publish experiments with statistically-significant effects or from well-known authors. This perpetuates misinformation in a field striving to reduce bias.
This carries consequences. If busy business leaders consistently misremember details, shareholders suffer. If society relies on recreated recollections, history becomes rewritten and the past denied. How much history is really accurate? Editing moments of war, oppression, apartheid or genocide prevents future learning. If a society fails to recognise wrongdoing, albeit unconsciously, it will be repeated. And trust in media will remain low.
But is recreated reality always bad? Is fiction not the currency of Oscar-winning movies and Pulitzer-prize books? The misremembering self can provide partial escape from trauma. If abused children can recall a rosier past or soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder reinterpret their battlefield horrors, isn’t this better than carrying mental scars? But remember, repressed memories which resurface can be inaccurate and add to source confusion.
A Behavioural Solution
Today, algorithm-based models and fact-checking websites like snopes.com or factcheck.org detect disinformation based on communication and content patterns. But no technology models or polygraphs decipher fake memories. However, behavioural science shows that people are less likely to believe fake news when given the opportunity to consciously deliberate rather than act impulsively or intuitively. People can help safeguard their memories with three simple nudge-based techniques.
- Pause & Probe: Beyond awareness and mindfulness, the internal act of critical thinking and ‘accuracy-checking’ habits can safeguard against error – pausing in the moment to separate fact from fiction. A recent experiment found that a simple accuracy reminder trebled people’s ability to discern mistruths and deterred willingness to share news on social media. Another found that post-communication warnings helped recall accuracy. As our misremembering self is consulted when planning, making salient accuracy checks and paying attention to instinct can avoid judgement error.
- Default & Discount: As future choices are based on prior choices, it makes sense to discount data reliability and default your mindset to assumed error. In high-consequence decisions, collate evidence, question and challenge existing beliefs in the moment. Technology can build buffers. Like in Greek mythology where Odysseus tied himself to a mast to resist temptation, some investors adopt a time-delay technique to stop themselves panic selling in market downturns. Such pre-set commitment devices have successfully increased savings rates in the Philippines.
- Frame & Fact-Check: Reframe each critical decision as a business risk which demands accuracy. Leverage external tools. Keep physical journals, notes, records and explore peripheral information. Don’t accept face-value and use checklists. Ask questions to separate fact, fantasy or fiction: Does the source often exaggerate? Am I being triggered? Is this evidence-based? Capture feedback in the moment like Amazon and Uber. Broaden the decision frame with independent advice.
Fake news and pandemic uncertainty will continue to distract us while incessant misinformation contaminates our decision-making and confidence in judgement. This impacts individual, organisational and societal well-being. But nudging critical thinking and self-checking will mitigate our overreliance on misinformation sources, supplemented by education and regulation. While accuracy-nudges will never fully eradicate the risk of misinformation effects in our memory, greater deliberation and attention will surely reduce regret-filled decisions. A fact worth remembering!