What’s the Real Problem with Fake News? We Are Wired to Believe It.


A football game in 1951 inspired what would become a landmark study in psychology. Dartmouth and Princeton squared off in an end of season match that turned ugly, resulting in a broken nose, a broken leg and a flurry of penalties. The game’s lack of sportsmanship became the topic of much public debate, with each side blaming the other for the lack of civility on the field.

Psychologists Drs. Hadley and Cantril, from Dartmouth and Princeton respectively, decided to study the differing responses to the game as a perceptual problem. They administered a questionnaire to a sample of students from each of their universities. They also showed a recording of the game to separate samples of their students. In both cases the question the researchers essentially wanted the participants to answer was, “So, being as objective as you can possibly be, what did you see?”

The results? Participants overwhelmingly “saw” a version of the game that was not aligned with reality. Further, participants “saw” the game’s nastiness as the other team’s fault. The researchers’ conclusion, which appeared in their report titled "They Saw a Game: A Case Study," reads as follows: “It seems clear that the "game" actually was many different games and that each version of the events that transpired was just as "real" to a particular person as other versions were to other people.”

Confirmation Bias - Fake News’ Best Friend

This is just one of many studies over the years that has rediscovered the following essential truth

about human nature: we see what we want to see. More importantly, we look for evidence that supports the belief systems we already have in place using perceptual myopia as a means of limiting our input. The psychological community has given this phenomenon a name: confirmation bias. Without confirmation bias we have to continually test our beliefs and hope we can survive the emotional chaos that results as we reshuffle our worlds. The reality is that we will do just about anything to avoid the confusion and powerlessness that comes with chaos. Advertisers know this only too well. In their quest to get us to feel rather than think, they craft simple, powerful emotional messages that confirm biases that we already hold dear.

Test Your Own Bias

To drive home the reality of confirmation bias to my Media Psychology PhD students at Fielding Graduate University, I ask them to observe their media input for a few days: TV programs they watch, newspapers and magazines that they read (paper and otherwise), email listservs they hear from, people they