Dark personality traits make susceptible to fake news

Psychologists at the University of Würzburg have studied what makes people more
Psychologists at the University of Würzburg have studied what makes people more susceptible to fake news.


People who deny the existence of facts believe in fake news more often. Particularly often affected are people with dark personality traits - those who always put their own benefit first.

These are the findings of a new study at the Institute for Human-Computer Media at the University of Würzburg. Some people believe fake news even when the scientific facts clearly speak against it," says psychologist Jan Philipp Rudloff. "We wanted to know why this is so and what role ideas about the nature of knowledge and facts play in this."

Rudloff, who is doing his doctorate in the department of communication psychologist Professor Markus Appel, conducted an extensive experiment on this question. In it, he and his professor confronted more than 600 test subjects from the U.S. with various short messages - such as , "In the first three years under Trump, 1.5 million fewer jobs were created than in the last three years of Obama’s term." Participants were asked to judge the truth of these statements.

Epistemic beliefs tapped with a questionnaire

Subsequently, they filled out a comprehensive questionnaire. In it, the subjects were asked to state, among other things, how much they trust their gut feeling when evaluating claims, how important tangible evidence is to them and how much they assume that politics, science and the media "fabricate" facts according to their interests.

"We also summarize these aspects under the term ’epistemic beliefs,’" Rudloff explains - epistéme comes from the Greek and means "cognition" or "knowledge.

In addition, the questionnaire tapped how important it was for the subjects to assert their own interests (even at the expense of their fellow human beings). This trait is also referred to as the "dark factor of personality". It is considered to be the core of various dark personality traits such as narcissism, psychopathy or Machiavellianism. "Everyone is self-interested to a certain degree," explains Rudloff. It becomes problematic when this fixation on one’s own well-being is so strong that the well-being of others no longer plays a role.

People with dark personalities bend reality to suit themselves

Analysis of the data showed that the less the participants believed in the existence of facts, the more difficult it was for them to distinguish true statements from false ones. In addition, there was a second conspicuous feature: the "darker" the personality of the test subjects, i.e. the more pronounced their self-interest at the expense of others, the more they doubted that there was a difference between scientific findings and mere opinions.

"You could call their beliefs post-factual; they believe above all what feels true to them," emphasizes Jan Philipp Rudloff. Accordingly, it is difficult for them to distinguish true statements from false ones - they therefore particularly often believe fake news to be true. People with dark personality traits bend reality to suit themselves. For example: I don’t wear a mask because the coronavirus is just an invention of the media," Rudloff explains. Of course, this twisting of the facts for selfish motives works particularly well when they are convinced that there are no independent scientific facts.

In another study published in the spring of 2022, Rudloff and Appel, together with Fabian Hutmacher of the Department of Communication Psychology and New Media, were already able to show that people with dark personalities were more likely to adhere to conspiracy theories during the pandemic.

Rudloff emphasizes, however, that it is by no means only this group that is susceptible. The decisive factor is always epistemic conviction," he says. If you don’t believe in the power of valid evidence and arguments, you won’t be swayed by even the most impressive fact check - regardless of your other personality traits. That goes for fake news as well as conspiracy theories."

Epistemic ideas develop at a young age

In psychology today, epistemic ideas are thought to develop and solidify during childhood and adolescence. For young children, there is only black or white on many issues: an idea is good or bad, a proposition true or false. Later, they learn to differentiate: Whether someone likes Beethoven or is into pop songs is a matter of taste. At this time, they tend to see different opinions as equally valid - even those on objectifiable questions such as the existence of man-made climate change.

At some point, we learn to evaluate different positions," says Rudloff. The motto is: There are different opinions, but some can be better substantiated than others. But not everyone seems to take this step. In situations like climate change or COVID-19, where a rational assessment of the arguments is crucial, this deficit can have nasty consequences.

Publications

Rudloff, J. P., & Appel, M. (2022). When Truthiness Trumps Truth. Epistemic Beliefs Predict the Accurate Discernment of Fake News. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/­mac0000070

Rudloff, J. P., Hutmacher, F., & Appel, M. (2022). Beliefs about the nature of knowledge shape responses to the pandemic: Epistemic beliefs, the dark factor of personality, and COVID-19-related conspiracy ideation and behavior. Journal of Personality. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/­jopy.12706