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 talk to, social media sites they frequent, YouTube videos they watch, newscasts they listen to…everything. Then, I ask them to use the power of objective inquiry they have hopefully developed as social scientists to infer the confirmation bias they use to build their worldview based on their choice of media sources. Every one of my intelligent, self-aware, well read students is surprised, often shocked, at the constraints of the filter bubbles they live within, all of which confirm rather than challenge their biases.
We are all in the same boat. We gravitate toward information that supports our worldview; whether the information is real or fake often isn't even on our radar. Then we go about our business convinced that our worldviews are informed and complete, and that we are responsible and balanced in our decision making. But we are blinded by what McLuhan called “ground” – the environment of our perceptions that we can’t see to question. These limitations seem to form the bedrock of the human condition.
Circumventing Critical Thought
All of this provides some insight into how fake news works. The brain, always on the lookout for ways to save energy, prefers to use habit, mental coasting and unprocessed “team think” rather than engage in critical thought. The result is that when we are faced with a new issue our response typically is not to pause, check our sources and then consider our options, particularly if those options threaten to challenge or broaden our perspectives. Doing so is simply too much work in an already overcrowded day in which we are forced to evaluate prodigious amounts of information on the fly. Instead, we leap for a familiar habit of the mind or latch on to whatever “the team is thinking” as a way of keeping afloat in the oceans of data and ideas in which we are continually immersed. The goal is to think as little as possible. Using confirmation bias is a quick and easy way to meet this goal and to deal with a world overwhelmed with options.
This is just the top layer of how fake news works. It goes much deeper if we consider the tools that all
mediasts use to construct media, whether fake or real. Did you know that regardless of how adept a critical thinker you might happen to be that you are much more inclined to believe text written in certain fonts, and in certain colors? And believe information portrayed through camera shots taken at particular angles? And accept news and ideas as more believable simply because they are repeated? We don’t care too much about these perceptual loopholes when used by honest journalists. But now imagine these tools in the hands of those deliberately spreading “truthiness” in order to promote an agenda, particularly one with which you don’t agree. However, this is a topic for another day.
What’s Our Response?
If this sounds dire, that’s because it is. The mediascape is like any other community in that it only works as well as its citizens’ commitment to facticity, diversity and the common good. Given there are many who would abuse the privilege of living in community, we have to be ever vigilant, even suspicious, not only of those who deliberately mislead, but those who spread fake news simply because they have been duped by others.
When it comes to helping our children, we should insist our schools teach media literacy and digital citizenship as a matter of course. Whether our children are consuming or producing media, they should be able to distinguish entertainment from journalism, and opinion from factual presentation. They should be able to effectively inquire about a news source’s agenda and means of presentation. This skill set needs to become a staple of education’s curriculum, not an add-on when convenient.
And we should teach character education from day one as a way to help students live media-based lifestyles that are informed, inspired and responsible. From the Talmud comes a saying made famous by Anais Nin which seems to explain so much: "We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” The message for us is clear: we need to teach our children not only how to think, but also how to be. After all, the quality of our news is determined by the quality of the people who create it.
Jason Ohler is a professor emeritus of educational technology and virtual learning, as well as a distinguished President's Professor, University of Alaska. When he is not playing with his many grandchildren, he is a professor in Fielding Graduate University's Media Psychology PhD program. At 65 he continues to write, conduct research, oversee student PhD activities, and deliver keynotes internationally about the future of humans and technology trying to make peace with each other. Keywords: digital citizenship, media ethics leadership, digital storytelling, transformational education, research and teaching about digital lifestyles, futurist and nowist, technology trends that will bend.
Han, F. (2010). “How the Brain Saves Energy: The Neural Thermostat.” Appearing in Yale Scientific online.
Retrieved July 25, 2017:
Hastorf A., Cantril, H. (1954). They saw a game: a case study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 49(1): 129-34.
Schwarz, N., Newman, E. "How does the gut know truth? The psychology of “truthiness”".
University of Southern California Preprint of an APA Science Brief, forthcoming in summer 2017.
Retrieved July 30, 2017:
Talmud quote. Research posted on Quote investigator website March 9, 2014. Retrieved July 25, 2017: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/09/as-we-are/