The spread of alternative facts and fake news in the United States is a downer, but this might put a smile on the faces of those who believe in truthfulness and compassion.
It turns out that Americans with conservative political beliefs tend to believe false information more than liberals do, according to a UCLA study expected to be published this month in the journal Psychological Science.
Liberals shouldn't crow too loudly, however. People at both ends of the spectrum, it turns out, are more likely to believe stories with negative outcomes, even if they're false. It's just that conservatives are "significantly" more likely than liberals to believe such info, according to the study, "Political Orientation Predicts Credulity Regarding Putative Hazards."
Study author and anthropologist Daniel Fessler, director of UCLA's Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture, says that humans have found it beneficial over the centuries to give extra weight to warnings about negative outcomes. He uses this example: If people are told that pink mushrooms can be fatal, they're faced with two choices: eating them and possibly dying, or not eating them and, at worst, missing out on some tasty fungi. The first possibility is so dire, and the downside of the second is so minimal, that it's logical to heed the warning. That's built into us as a survival instinct. "Everyone has a bias to believe hazardous information," he says.
"If you live in an objectively dangerous world, it pays to be alert to danger and to accept warnings," Fessler adds. "If you live in a safe world, then if you're hyper-alert to threats, you're wasting a lot of resources and you're failing to respond to opportunities. It's not dumb or smart. It depends on the nature of the world."
Fessler conducted two surveys, in 2015 and 2016, to reach his conclusions. Researchers asked subjects if they believed each of 16 statements, 14 of which were false. Fessler says it was social conservatives (those against reproductive rights and same-sex marriage) who tended to believe false information the most; economic conservatives were in the middle.
"People who are socially conservative are more likely to believe statements about hazards in the world," Fessler says. "They find this as a valuable and safe way to organize society. Stick to the tried-and-true."
On the other hand, he says, "Liberals say change is good. Liberals are more optimistic."
The study comes as the country is roiled in political upheaval, with the left accusing the right of buying into a series of lies told by President Trump and his administration, claims ranging from the size of his inauguration crowd to the origins of the San Bernardino terrorists. Even the normally staid and measured New York Times has used variations of the world "lie" multiple times to describe Trump administration statements.
The research might help those who are opposed to Trump better understand "why profit-driven efforts to spread misinformation aimed at conservatives were more successful than equally untrue reports aimed at liberals during the 2016 presidential election," according to a UCLA statement. "False, inflammatory stories that were designed to appeal to a liberal audience didn’t generate the massive number of clicks or shares required to be lucrative via online ad networks. Some conservative content, however, did."
Fessler notes a few falsehoods that might have helped propel Trump to the White House: that big city crime was reaching "record levels" and that illegal immigration was bad, economically, for the nation. "Empirically those claims are false," he says. "We live in a relatively safe and prosperous world right now."
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Fessler says he plans to do additional research on why many conservatives tend to doubt global warming, which is inconsistent with his finding that conservatives are drawn to negative news.
"My speculation is there's a psychological difference between an imminent threat and a distal threat," he says. "People don't see the consequences of global warming in front of them. A common climate change–denier response is, 'Look at all the snow out there.'"
Fessler also says neither he nor his research is taking sides.
"It's important for readers to understand that nothing in our results speaks to how effective a liberal or conservative perspective is in dealing with the world," he says. "There are costs and benefits to both."